Feels like just yesterday I was the Apple of your eye.
For a fleeting moment, I was #1, your main monitor. You gazed deeply into my screen for endless hours. I promised a lifetime of coffee shop companionship and surfing sessions, a place to download, upload and unload. You spilled wine on my keyboard. We were joined at the chip.
As the holidays dawned, your attentions turned towards the Powerbook Pro, a sleek, young model that was bigger, faster and stronger. By Christmas, it was over. The new techno-pet purchased, you moved your files to her hard drive and left this hapless laptop in a pile of other dejected electronics, collectively known as “e-waste.”
Gifts With a Toxic Tag
Once rejected, electronic devices quickly morph from prized possessions to toxic nightmares. A computer monitor alone contains anywhere from two to four pounds of lead, while a 27-inch TV carries up to eight pounds. Factor in additional quantities of phosphor, barium, hexavalent chromium, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium and brominated flame-retardants, to name a few, and we’ve got a real problem on our hands.
As the gift-giving season approaches, millions upon millions of last years’ electro-gadgets will be rendered obsolete, replaced by the “new and improved.” If the question of “need” rarely crosses our minds, even less time do we devote to considering the afterlife of our digital dinosaurs, which have quickly become the fastest-growing category of our waste-stream. In California alone, an estimated 6,000 computers per day become “obsolete,” only 10 percent of which are actually recycled.
The true story of what happens to most retired electronics is ugly, shocking and may just give us pause next time we’re seized with OUD (Obsessive Upgrade Disorder):
They go to landfills, where they leach heavy, corrosive metals into our air and groundwater. Seventy percent of the heavy metals found in landfills come from e-waste, disproportionately affecting nearby low-income communities;
They are incinerated, releasing mercury, cadmium, dioxins, arsenic and lead-laden ashes into the atmosphere and endangering nearby workers;
Perhaps most disturbing, they are exported to developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations are less stringent. In the US, an estimated 50-80 percent of the e-waste collected for “recycling” is in reality shipped overseas.
Industrialized nations reap the economic and competitive benefits of our high-tech lifestyles, and then ship the e-wreckage abroad, mainly to Asia and Africa. They need the money; we need the landfill space – sounds like a win-win if one only turns a blind eye to the justice element.
It’s difficult, however, to imagine that even the most hardened scrooge would remain unmoved by this image from a collection site in Guiyu, China, the “e-waste dump of the world”: “…hundreds of trucks rumble through every day, carting spent computers, printers and televisions from North America to dumping grounds scattered among the small villages. For a dollar or two a day, unprotected migrant workers sift through mounds of electronic waste – burning plastics, cracking apart cathode-ray tubes and pouring acid over circuit boards to extract precious metals and other valuable materials within.”
Fortunately, an international body has been established to prevent precisely this sort of egregious injustice. Introduced in 1989, the Basel Convention serves to regulate the movement of hazardous waste between countries, particularly flowing from industrialized nations to developing countries.
Of the 168 signatories, only three have yet to take the next step to actually ratify the treaty: Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States.
Give Your E-waste Some R, R and R.
The good news: there are several bona fide alternatives to landfilling or cruise-lining our toxic trash, in order of importance:
Reduce: Use less stuff. Carefully consider each and every purchase. Will it vastly improve your life? Is it worth the two-five-year lifespan, the societal disposal costs and the environmental hazards? If so, then:
Reuse: When said indispensable gadget is outdated but still functions, donate it to a school or nonprofit, where utility matters more than cutting edge trends;
Recycle: Last in the hierarchy for a reason, but still preferable to the dump. Contact your local municipality to find safe disposal options, or try California Recycles (www.californiarecycles.com) to find a local drop-off; OR:
Ditch your e-waste for FREE on December 3 at Wild Oats! Through partnership with California Recycles, the Santa Monica Wild Oats will take your robot rejects, and reward you with a free canvas bag and $5 store coupon, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at 1425 Montana Avenue.
A final piece of advice as we enter the seasonal frenzy: try to find gifts that won’t byte back.