Landfill gold - the problem of electronic waste

29. ledna 2004
Landfill gold - the problem of electronic waste
Richard Donovan examines the problem of electronic waste


The word \"mine\" - as in goldmine - evokes decidedly contradictory associations. On the one hand, mines are sources of wealth and opportunity; on the other, they can leave behind scarred earth and toxic leachings. Few people perhaps realise that lurking just centimetres from their fingertips lies a mine of precious metals that has not only gone largely unretrieved, but is potentially poisoning us because it is being overlooked - namely, the personal computer. With the new Computer Recycling Law having just come into effect in Japan, there\'s no better time to examine this issue.

PCs contain recoverable gold and silver in their metal contacts, but more surpisingly, the old-style glass cathode-ray screens are lined with as much as 3.5kgs of lead. The motherboards within the central processing unit itself also contain lead and are in turn encased in cadmium-rich plastic - a motherlode indeed. Even the svelte new LCD displays are swimming with mercury. So how does Japan measure up to different parts of the world in handling this toxic legacy of the information age?

In January 2002, the US-based environmental group Basel Action Network (BAN) released a documentary exposing e-waste practices in the US and UK, titled Exporting Harm. It details the all-too-common practice of unscrupulous waste distributors posing as recyclers, but in reality sending defunct electronic equipment to places like Guiyu in southeast China. In this hapless city, some 100,000 locals are said to scavenge for copper and gold without sufficient protective gear or safety standards. No toxic metals or plastics are actually recycled - they simply escape into the air, water and ground as men, women and children burn the e-waste to liberate the sought-after metals. BAN claims that up to 80% of so-called recycling from the US ends up in poorly regulated Chinese, Indian and Pakistani salvage dumps, though China says it is clamping down on such unsavoury \"imports.\"

Some manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard, have set up computer-recycling centres, but these have had trouble competing with prison-labour dismantling schemes with lower safety standards, and all those boats to China. Further, the US National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI), launched in 2001 to enable makers to reduce toxics and increase recycling rates, has foundered in an unfavourable economic and political climate. In fact, outside California and Massachusetts, the issue of e-recycling remains a moot point. Many old PCs simply head straight for landfills, despite the proven risk of toxics leaching into groundwater.

This sorry state of affairs is in stark contrast to recent progress in Europe and Japan. The European Union passed e-waste laws in October 2002 - opposed by US computer industry associations - that stress the concept of individual producer responsibility. From 2006, each electronics manufacturer must recover 75% of its products, and recycle 65% of these. Additionally, lead, cadmium and mercury use must be phased out by 2008. These steps will undoubtedly encourage makers not only to make their products more recyclable in the first place, but also to reduce the use of toxics in their manufacture.

Critics argue that focusing on recycling is a palliative measure that distracts from the growing overconsumption in the developed world: If people assume that what they throw away will be recycled, they will be even less likely to resist the inveigling voice of the style merchants - \"New amps for old!\" But some hope that e-recycling will be a bridge to a new mode of moderated consumption in which people consume a service - for example, the use of a leased computer - rather than a product. And at the very least, the laws will encourage the US to catch up, as all American manufacturers based in Europe will be forced to comply.

In Japan, severely limited waste-disposal options have concentrated the minds of government and manufacturers and led to pioneering partnerships between state and industry. Japan\'s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has a long-term vision for a closed-loop recycling society. In April 2001, METI fully enacted the Home Appliances Recycling Law, created some years earlier. This required manufacturers to recycle the \"big four\" - televisions, air conditioners, washing machines and refrigerators. But the makers had prepared for this, rather than waiting for regulatory mandate, and their 37 recycling plants set up throughout Japan were raring to go from day one.

Consumers, too, have embraced the scheme, despite having to pay thousands of yen per take-back. Though illicit disposal of waste of numerous kinds continues to despoil the countryside, the feared mass dumping of old appliances has not occurred. Now most appliance stores include the recycling costs in the purchase price. The plants are meeting the 50-60% recycling target, which includes the reuse of parts. There is a long way to go to achieve 100%, but at least much of the infrastructure is in place.

However, computers, along with a number of other appliances, were not included among the home appliances to be recycled, partly because of the difficulty of extracting their hazardous lodes. While businesses have been required to recycle computers since 2001, and makers such as Toshiba have eliminated substances such as lead from their new PCs, there has been no systematic approach to dealing with the millions of defunct units sitting in homes across Japan. Municipalities disposed of almost half a million home PCs in 2001, mainly by dumping them in landfill. Their extreme toxicity provides a particular headache for a country whose landfill sites are projected to be exhausted within a few years, let alone one that has experienced the nightmare of mercury poisoning in Minamata Bay.

But the issue of recycling home computers is finally being dealt with, if a little coyly at first. In October this year, METI quietly introduced the Computer Recycling Law. (The METI website did not provide details in English at the time of writing, though a METI spokesperson says they will appear soon.) This law enjoins all major manufacturers to take back their old computers for reuse and recycling.

The remaining grey area concerns computers made by manufacturers who are not members of the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association, such as overseas-made PCs and those whose manufacturers have gone out of business. Ultimately, this umbrella group will be expected to shoulder the costs of dealing with such \"orphaned\" computers, but at the moment in Kansai it appears that you will still have to contact your local city office for disposal.

With the scheme in its infancy, it remains to be seen how well industry rises to the challenge of home computer recycling. But if its response is anything like the committed, if belated, approach to recycling other home appliances, Japan may head the worldwide effort to turn the lead at our fingertips into gold - or at least into something like a sustainable business in its own right.

To recycle your old computer, contact the manufacturer to apply, then either take your unwanted PC to the nearest post office, or arrange for the post office to pick it up, in either case paying a fee of ¥3,000-¥4,000, depending on the size. Japan Post then delivers it to the appropriate manufacturer\'s recycling centre. As with other home appliances, the fee is already incorporated into the retail price of brand-new computers bought from October. Check the METI website; for more information on BAN:
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