Saturday, January 12, 2008

Dark Side of E Waste

E-Waste: Dark Side of Digital Age
Kendra Mayfield 01.10.03 2:00 AM

Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, said that Dell could be instrumental in forcing other manufacturers to follow suit by changing its recycling policies."If they would start matching their industry leadership with environmental leadership, they would really help turn things around," he said.But Dell insists that its recycling program is environmentally responsible.
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These days, it's often cheaper and more convenient to buy a new PC than to upgrade an old one. But what happens to those old computers once they've been abandoned for newer models?
The refuse from discarded electronics products, also known as e-waste, often ends up in landfills or incinerators instead of being recycled. And that means toxic substances like lead, cadmium and mercury that are commonly used in these products can contaminate the land, water and air.
"The fruits of our high-tech revolution are pure poison if these products are improperly disposed of at the end of their useful life," said Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
On Thursday, Smith's group released its annual Computer Report Card comparing the environmental records of 28 tech firms.
The report, sponsored by the SVTC and the Computer TakeBack Campaign, found most U.S. firms lag behind their Japanese competitors when it comes to the use of hazardous materials, recycling programs and worker health and safety.
The United States generates more e-waste than any other nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. More than 4.6 million tons of it entered U.S. landfills in 2000, and that amount is projected to grow fourfold in the next few years.
Some of that waste is recycled. For example, steel, aluminum and copper are often stripped from outdated machines and reused in newer models.
But even recycled parts come at a price. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of e-waste collected in the United States for recycling is exported to areas such as China, India or Pakistan, where workers taking apart the old machines are handling toxic chemicals that can pose serious health problems.
Some manufacturers are beginning to assume greater responsibility for what happens to their products after they become obsolete. For example, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Gateway have recently expanded programs to collect old computer equipment.
The SVTC report card evaluated the firms based upon criteria gleaned from the companies' websites. Only one company, Fujitsu, received a passing grade.
Fujitsu is among a handful of Japanese companies that have developed technologies to eliminate toxic chemicals by developing lead-free products.
"The leadership continues to be by and large the Japanese companies, and the U.S. companies tend to be far behind," Smith said.
"A lot of (U.S. manufacturers') initiatives are piecemeal and not really designed to address the vast majority of consumer concerns," he added. "There is still an enormous amount of computer waste being exported to China."
Japan and the European Union have adopted progressive e-waste recycling laws. The European parliament recently approved two legislative mandates to require manufacturers to cover the recycling and collection costs for their own take-back programs.
Europe's Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive are setting the global standard for computer recycling, Smith said. Under the RoHS initiative, any manufacturer who wants to do business in Europe has to produce lead-free products.
The Computer Report Card says that some U.S. companies have a double standard when it comes to recycling. While some companies have implemented recycling policies in the European Union and Japan, where such programs are mandated, they've yet to do so in the United States.

A Battle Between the Bottle and the Faucet

THOSE eight daily glasses of water you’re supposed to drink for good health? They will cost you $0.00135 — about 49 cents a year — if you take it from a New York City tap.
Or, city officials suggest, you could spend 2,900 times as much, roughly $1,400 yearly, by drinking bottled water. For the extra money, they say, you get the added responsibility for piling on to the nation’s waste heap and encouraging more of the industrial emissions that are heating up the planet.
But trends in American thirst quenching favor the 2,900-fold premium, as the overflowing trash cans of Central Park attest. In fact, bottled water is growing at the expense of every other beverage category except sports drinks. It has overtaken coffee and milk, and it is closing in on beer. Tap, if trends continue, would be next.
Now New York City officials — like the mayors of Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and San Francisco — are campaigning to get people to reverse course and open their faucets instead of their wallets. The city Health Department, mindful of high obesity rates, says water is more healthful than many other, sugar-filled drinks. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection touts its low environmental impact. Both note that it’s practically free (leaving aside those New Yorkers for whom paying extra is a lifestyle choice).
New York’s water is the envy of municipalities everywhere. It is one of just five major American systems whose water is so good it needs little or no filtration, saving energy and chemicals. (The others are Boston, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle.)
The system is self-sustaining from rainwater stored in reservoirs. Gravity takes it downhill to the city, where pumps are unnecessary in all but a few neighborhoods.
New York water is quite pure, requiring little chlorine, and low in minerals, giving it a clean taste.
Sounds like an ad for bottled water.
But beverage industry representatives say their version is not just about health and taste — its plastic container, scorned by environmentalists, is actually a plus for consumers.
“The tap water quality is fine in most of the United States,” said John D. Sicher Jr., editor and publisher at Beverage Digest, a trade publication. “The issue is convenience and shifting consumer preference. It’s not so easy, walking down Third Avenue on a hot day, to get a glass of tap water.”
Bottled water has profited from the sagging image of soft drinks, a category in decline for nearly a decade (but still the most consumed of beverages, by far). Preferences evolve — could it be tap’s turn?
“Through education and motivation you can get people to change their habits,” said Emily Lloyd, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, citing smoking, recycling and wearing seat belts. Convenience comes in different forms, she added: “It’s easy to fill a bottle of water and stick it in your backpack.”
With surveys showing climate change a growing concern, officials and advocates say they hope people will consider the implications of billions of bottles.
“More than 90 percent of the environmental impacts from a plastic bottle happen before the consumer opens it,” said Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Oil for plastic, oil for shipping, oil for refrigeration — and in the end, most of the effort goes to landfills.
“The bottle is going to have to change,” he said, noting research in plastics made from plants. “I’m seeing more interest in this than any time in 30 years.”

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