Environmental effects of computer manufacturing and disposal will soon become part of the price of maintaining the enterprise IT portfolio, under legislative efforts gaining momentum throughout the world.
Manufacturers face technical challenges, and buyers may need to reconsider accounting methods and timetables for equipment replacement as ITs environmental costs come home to roost.
In its annual “State of the World” analysis for 2004, the Worldwatch Institute, in Washington, calls every personal computer “a toxics trap.” CRT displays, the report observes, contain hexavalent chromium—the pollutant made famous by activist Erin Brockovich—in addition to their better-known payload of lead, which readily leaches into groundwater when monitors are discarded in landfills.
The institutes report further illuminates the toxic content of PCs. Resistors contribute cadmium; connectors add beryllium; plastic cases and circuit boards contain various plastics, including the difficult-to-recycle polyvinyl chloride, that are often laced with bromine-based flame retardants. And by next year, the institute predicts, one computer will be discarded for every new computer purchased in the United States.
The good news, if one can call it that, is that more than two-thirds of discarded computers go into storage for lack of suitable disposal sites. The bad news is that even so, discarded computers and other electronic waste contribute more than two-thirds of the heavy metals input to U.S. landfills, as estimated by groups including the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the National Safety Council.
Exporting the Problem
Exported electronic waste, meanwhile, is becoming a serious pollutant in developing countries, where component materials are reclaimed by crude methods that largely ignore workers health.
In a report last month on the “Earth Files” program produced by the British Broadcasting Corp., a toxicologist with the International Solid Waste Association described the cottage industry of computer recycling in India, saying, “Youve got lead being taken on to peoples clothing, youve got lead being taken on to peoples hands. Quite often in these small workshops, people have small smelters or ovens [with] no fume extraction. … Not only have people got this waste in solid form, theyre also breathing it in.”
Lead is an accumulative poison, meaning it can build up in the body over periods of many years. Australian occupational safety and health guidelines estimate that 30 percent of swallowed lead is absorbed by the body, along with 70 percent of inhaled lead. Obvious symptoms include headaches and joint pain, but stealthier and more severe consequences include kidney damage, nervous system damage, and sterility or birth defects.
Two major manufacturers of semiconductor chips recently announced measures to reduce or eliminate lead from their products. Intel Corp. will seek a 95 percent reduction by next quarter, and National Semiconductor plans to be lead-free by years end.
Japans NEC Corp., including subsidiary NEC Electronics Corp., seeks lead-free production by March 2006. This deadline looks as if its aimed at compliance with the July 1, 2006, effective date of the European Unions Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, which will limit the use of lead and other materials in new electrical and electronic equipment.
Interpretation of that EU directive was muddied, however, by a committee meeting late last month. At that meeting, specific limitations on lead were discussed, and it was not clear at that time whether limits on lead as a percentage of weight would apply to components or to fully assembled items. EU member states require clarification before they can write their own enabling laws.
Eliminating lead from electronic components is no small task, as noted by Melissa Grupen-Shemansky, director of packaging and interconnect technology at Agere Systems Inc., in Allentown, Pa. Lead-free solders, she said, in comments on the companys Web site, require higher temperatures—on the order of 500 F compared with roughly 420 F for conventional lead-containing solders.
More troubling, Grupen-Shemansky said, is the tendency of lead-free solders to form crystalline “tin whiskers” that can grow long enough to create short circuits among components.
In one test described by Grupen-Shemansky, whiskers bridged one-third of the way across a 200-micron gap between chip leads after only five weeks of storage at 140 F and 93 percent humidity. These are not typical indoor conditions but not unlike what might be found in a warehouse. If lead must be eliminated, she said, then other materials such as nickel may form an effective barrier against whisker formation.
It seems likely to eWEEK Labs that this will become an area of competition among electronics manufacturers as regulators demand reductions in toxic material use.
In addition to reducing toxic input to new equipment and thus, to the waste stream, regulators in the United States and Europe are exploring means to place accountability for downstream costs with builders and users of IT gear—rather than leaving them, as they are now, to be absorbed by municipalities and developing countries.
The EUs Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive will mandate, among other measures, the free return of old equipment when comparable new equipment is purchased after Aug. 13, 2005, with producers paying for subsequent “environmentally sound disposal.”
In the United States, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa Valley, Calif., proposes to avert proliferation of inconsistent state laws with a program administered by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) at the federal level. Issuing grants to governments and private organizations for computer recycling programs, Thompsons federal plan would be supported by fees of up to $10 collected on sales of individual computers, monitors and laptops.
Said Thompson of his proposed bill: “We cant afford to continue endangering our health and our environment and packing our landfills by ignoring the problems created by computer waste.”
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at [email protected].