Last week a friend from college came for a visit. We’d lost contact over the intervening 40 years, but through the miracle of the Internet she tracked me down. We agreed, via email, that we should meet for one last laugh before we –um, log off. So she booked a flight online and emailed me her itinerary. Using our cell phones, we managed to hook up, so to speak, at the luggage carousel. In other words, technology played a big part in our reunion. Yep, lots more.
While preparing for her visit I opened a rarely used closet in the guest room. In it was a Jenga tower of old computers, a 3-D timeline of our techno history, with the oldest boxy clunkers on the bottom, unused scanners in the middle, slab-thick laptops balanced on top, with keyboards, external drives and mice chinked into the gaps. Wires and power cords, the kudzu vines of the cyber jungle, entwined the tower that I’d managed to forget.
I hadn’t forgotten our old printers (which seem to be obsolete before we pry them out of their foamy boxes) because they’re sitting in the garage on top of the woodpile, where mice of another sort now provide their input. They still work, it’s just that the new ones are so much faster and cheaper (even if the cartridges aren’t) that a person can hardly afford not to buy one. But no one wants the old ones. Recently someone broke into our garage and tried to steal a bike, but the cords hanging down from the printers got tangled in the spokes, and they gave up. Even with a bicycle thrown in, no one will take an old printer.
So when we learned of the Great eCycling Event at the Mall of America, we leapt into action. We disassembled the closeted tower and readied the components for send off. There is very little sentiment connected with getting rid old computers, but as an addict to this soul-sucking technology, I couldn’t quite let them go into the world with any of the intimate details of my life still somewhere inside. It is not difficult, I soon discovered, to turn a few screws and yank the heart, okay, hard drive, out of a dead computer.
We headed to the Mall, car loaded with cyber trash. What an opportunity to give back, as they say, and what better venue than America’s largest shrine to consumption
When we got to the Mall we saw rows of police cars with gumballs flashing, and a computerized sign at the side of the road blinking the message, “E-Cycling event CLOSED.” A bomb threat? “Red alert!!” yelped my roommate, with the dramatic flare that helped get her excused from college prematurely. Yellow cones funneled traffic away from the drop site next to Ikea and towards the Mall, and soon we were being sucked in, like corks bobbing in the current.
“My grandchildren,” said my friend, “will not forgive me if I do not stick a toe into the Mall of America.” Hours later, (and yes, after a ride down Paul Bunyon’s chute) we stumbled back out. On the way home we heard that the collection site had closed simply because it was overwhelmed with the amount of tech trash we’re all trying to unload.
Maybe it’s just as well. It turns out that an estimated 50 to 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. each year ends up being shipped overseas where, according to the Associated Press, workers in developing countries "use hammers, gas burners and their bare hands to extract metals, glass and other recyclables, exposing themselves and the environment to a cocktail of toxic chemicals."
"It is being recycled, but it's being recycled in the most horrific way you can imagine," says Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental group.
Some states have passed laws to ensure appropriate recycling, and the EPA is working with environmental groups, recyclers and electronics manufacturers to develop a system to certify companies that recycle electronics responsibly. But so far the various players have not agreed on standards and enforcement.
Meanwhile, my friend's gone back to Boston, and I’ve got a car full of clattering computers that make me feel like a junky trying to get rid of my tainted needles. It’s a high, all right, this cyber stuff, but like all highs, it comes with a price.