Where We Dump

John Markoff has a superb story in this morning's New York Times about how the U.S. and other countries are dumping all of our old electronics in China and other less-New-Economy-oriented countries where workers with no safety equipment disassemble toxic or dangerous components, and dispose of parts in such a way that it leaches into groundsoil and the water supply. (I had heard a couple of years ago that China was going to ban what are called end-of-line shipments, in which dead computers are simply offloaded to them.)

More coverage: the report Markoff covered was issued by BAN (Basel Action Network), a Seattle-based group that seeks to enforce implementation of an accord reached in Basel, Switzerland, for limiting the export of toxic materials from a group of industrialized nations to countries outside their purview. Stories also appeared in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer (cover story), Seattle Times (front of Local News), and Tacoma News-Tribune (cover story). For more stories, follow this link to n Alltheweb.com news source search on the topic.

The San Jose Mercury News's story notes at the end: Hewlett-Packard will pick up your unwanted computer equipment -- whether it's made by HP or not -- and recycle it in the United States for a nominal fee. Functioning computers are donated to charities, while others are refurbished and resold. Those that can't be salvaged are recycled properly without adding to landfills. For details, go to www.hp.com/go/recycle.

Who was it who said that the computer revolution was a clean revolution? Just ask the folks in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, too, who have seen billions of gallons of typically potable water used and discarded, often polluted until recent years, in the process of making silicon and other components. Yes, in a state with perpetual water crises and cyclical droughts, they have a water-intensive industry. It would be like putting papermaking plants in the desert. (They probably do that, too.)

King County, the county in which Seattle is located, is a national leader on the topic of recycling computer and electronic components, as the county and city and whole Northwest have been in reclaiming our sordid outputs into useful inputs. The county has a special project called the Computer Recovery Project. Launched as a test in October 2000 as a public/private partnership before banning computer monitors from our dumps, the CRP was wildly successful.

Monitors can be disassembled, and the lead glass of the tubes smelted to extract the lead and the glass. Only a few plants can perform this task, so the cost is relatively high to transport these heavy monitors cross-country to Pennsylvania. The coordinator of the program told me that it's unlikely new smelters will open because of the industry's transition to LCD displays, which do not require lead in their construction.

Last week, over President's Day weekend, Staples ran a free promotion nationwide: bring in old, dying, or dead equipment and get some coupons. They'd give you a trade-in on working, newer equipment, and a coupon for $20 off $100 or more in purchases that weekend for dead devices. We dug up a couple hundred pounds or more of useless stuff: two monitors that wouldn't stay on, a dead computer (dead power supply, stripped out memory and hard drive), old printers long gone. I believe that Staples collected million of pounds of gear nationwide. They had pulled in maybe half a ton the day we went in at that one store, which was the morning of President's Day itself.