The fantastically futuristic world of the Jetson cartoon characters was filled with elaborate robotic gizmos. Today in our real world, robotic vacuum cleaners, videophones, moving walkways, and computers are commonplace. We still lack affordable jetpacks, space boots and sonic showers, but I’m sure someone is working on it.
Computer guts can contain toxic lead, mercury, beryllium, chromium and cadmium. Dixons and furans can be released if PVC casings or coated wires are burned. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The technological lifecycle, from idea to adoption, is getting shorter. Marketing whizzes from Spacely Space Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs equivalents vie to convince consumers to buy the latest greatest electronic devices for communication, information management or entertainment. Count the number of TVs, DVD/Blue-Ray players, GPS, cell phones, MP3 players, computers, video games and other electronic devices in your house and vehicles. The average American household contains approximately 24 electronic products. (Source: Consumer Electronics Association, April 2008)
There are downsides to all this marvelous technology. It’s not just the virtual meltdown my husband suffers every time I introduce a new remote control into our living room. A bigger problem is all the electronic waste, or eWaste, generated when old technology becomes obsolete.
In 1998, TVs, computers, cell phones and other assorted electronics made up about 2% of our municipal solid waste stream. In the last decade, that number has more than doubled. Nowadays, a desktop computer has an average lifespan of only 3-5 years, although there are a few folks still limping along on a Commodore 64. In 2005, EPA estimated that up to 37,000,000 computers became obsolete. In 2009, when the nation switched to digital TV broadcasting, millions of cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs without converter boxes stopped working.
As a result, hundreds of millions of unwanted products have accumulated in storage. (Source: EPA, 2007) Eventually, all that stuff has to go somewhere. Unfortunately, out of the 2.25 million tons of electronic products that have reached the end of their lifespan, 82% will end up buried in a landfill or burned in an incinerator.
The remaining 18% of eWaste is sent for reuse or recycling. EPA estimated that in 2005, about 61% of that is exported. If it lands in a developed country, it is probably well-regulated. If it lands in a developing country (what we used to call “third world countries”), there may be no controls. Recycling is often done by children in scrap yards.
Most of these electronic devices have components made with toxic heavy metals such as lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury. These constituents usually do not pose a danger when electronic products are used. However, when eWaste is mismanaged, it can end up in the environment where it can cause harm. For example, when PVC plastic housings are burned, toxic dioxins and furans are generated.
Last weeks’ article highlighted an environmentally responsible option available to Woodstock and Pomfret residents – an eCycling day on June 19th, 2010 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Woodstock Town Hall. If you don’t live in those towns, or can’t make it, there are other options to keep your eWaste from causing pollution. Check out next weeks’ articles for ideas. Several alternatives to disposal could even net you a chunk of change.
Note: Sprockets and cogs are actually mechanical as opposed to electronic.
See Part III: eCycling Options for Your eWaste