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Computers: A case for raising the dead

Computers are the sinews of the e-age. But many of these old workhorses finally turn up in the dump-yard, polluting the environment. Dancewithshadows solemnly vows to recycle our old dabbas to reduce the pressure on the planet.


You see them everywhere, be at home or work. Entire businesses are run on them. We need them to keep in touch with people, access important information, send reminders, and ask for stuff via the Net. Computers, like God, are omnipresent. They are no longer a luxury, but a necessity in our lives. But what about the perils of having so many computers when the time comes to discard the old for the new?

The proliferation of computers is creating a new problem worldwide -- a rapidly growing mountain of waste products, which needs urgent recycling. Every technological advancement triggers obsolescence in the older product. But figures show that less than six per cent of them are recycled. Many valuable resources are lost when these computers turn obsolete.

Electronic products contain several precious metals, engineered plastics, glass and materials, which require energy to source and manufacture. Polystyrene plastic is found in CPU, monitor, keyboard and mouse; copper, gold, iron, palladium, cobalt, platinum, silver, mercury, tin, nickel, antimony and zinc, among others are used to manufacture the hard disks. Many of the component metals add to pollution, since they contain toxic substances like lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and flame-retardants. 

According to a study by the University of Denmark, it takes two cups of crude oil and 50 cubic feet of natural gas to manufacture every pound of plastic. Every year, computer manufacturers consume approximately one million barrels of crude oil and 7.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas. 

Discarded electronic scrap is very expensive to recycle, and reusing some of the obsolete equipment is the best answer, which cannot be achieved without public and corporate support.

The eco-hazard posed by discarded computer material needs special handling. A non-usable computer can be broken up into components and recycled. For the recyclers to be efficient, they have to deal with and process tons of material everyday. The materials have to be segregated into reusable and non-reusable products.

Many can be refurbished and sold while others are donated; the rest broken down into metals, electronic components, cathode ray tubes, and plastics and sold in bulk to specialised refiners. The most valuable product of the computer is its electronic board, which is sent to the precious metal refiners who try to retrieve these metals.

The cathode ray tube is heavily loaded with lead and is considered a hazardous waste. It is ground and sold to manufacturers or used in smelting operations. Precious metals are used for new products. But because manufacturers are reducing the amount of precious metals in computers, the value of the recycled electronics is becoming less attractive.

Batteries salvaged from used laptops and lithium batteries from other computers are powered down. Plastics and small containers connected by screws, bolts, rivets or glue are disassembled. The whole process is manual and quite costly. Household computers are not regarded as hazardous including those resold and donated.

Most obsolete computer equipment are sent to third world countries where the eco-rules are not so stringent. A solution has been sought by computer industries worldwide to dispose obsolete goods. Many unwanted computers and environmentally unsafe spares are shipped to China where the environmental laws are weak.

Many computer spares are laced with toxic chemicals. Those which cannot be disposed of come to use in landfills. The European Union plans to make computer manufacturers take back their products at no extra cost once the equipment becomes obsolete.

Many in the computer hardware industry believe that disposing, recycling and researching in this field will jack up computer prices. But many feel that this is small price to pay for a better world. IBM, the world's largest computer manufacturer is planning to accept all types of PC parts for recycling, though for a small fee. In Germany, a law has been passed which mandates companies to take back their products or to set up easy accessible collection systems.

Many companies, on the other hand, take back old equipment only if the consumer buys new equipment. And yet others say, there should be a system whereby the cost of recycling should be adjusted into the computer manufacturing costs, thereby saving time and money. 

Volumes will only continue to grow. An efficient recycling system will depend crucially on the manufacturers, transporters and recyclers. Evidence points towards computers becoming a significant polluter of landfills, because if left anywhere else, they take up space. The first and second world countries can recycle computers, but those in the third world bear the brunt for they can only make use of computers by reselling or donating them.

The recycling process is time-consuming and takes long to establish. Also, a certain level of coordination between the manufacturers, recyclers and retailers is called for. Experts estimate that more than 20 million personal computers became obsolete in 1998 and more than 60 million join them by 2005.

By bringing people together, computers, these digital creatures of the e-age, no doubt, enable birth of the global village. For the same reason, one shouldn’t forget the reasonability to keep the village in verdant green. 






God save the Malayalee

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