Cyber Trash

November 18, 2007 by susan
Old computers, dumped for recycling

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.

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Comments

fred schumacher (not verified) | November 20, 2007 - 11:03am

Read your op-ed in this morning's Strib. When Silicon Valley first exploded on the nation's consciousness, it was touted as a brave new age of non-polluting industry, unlike the old dirty smokestack factories back east. And now we realize that both in its manufacture and recycling, electronics are very toxic.

This is one of the issues that worries me about fuel-cells, especially their use in autos. I've been writing in to greencarcongress.com and other similar blogs that fuel-cells will become a recycling nightmare. The same can be said for plug-in hybrids. We'll have a massive proliferation of not easy to recycle components.

For all their faults, internal combustion engines are a piece of cake to recycle. It's interesting that in the Bibendum Challenge, held last weekend in Shanghai, China, that a pretty ordinary car, a Renault Logan Eco2, beat all the other high-tech entries, by averaging 86 mpg. This car is 95% recyclable.

You've hit on a big problem in our modern society. We make things, because we can, without thinking about what will happen to them after their useful life is done. In the immortal words of Tom Lehrer, "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they'll come down; that's not my department, says Werner von Braun."

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susan | November 20, 2007 - 11:28am

Thanks for this info. I wish I could have expounded on the topic, as there's so much more -- as I learned once I began to dig into it. My experience at the recycling event at the Mall truly was a smack-the-forehead sort of moment. It's so obvious, why hadn't I thought about all of this and wondered more about what sort of recycling we're really doing?
You're ahead of the game. We all need to learn more.

A note on the piece posted here and the CLB in general. First, this is how I tend to work. I write what I'm thinking about on the blog, then refine it for publication elsewhere. So the changes are mine, not the paper's. (though at times my editor saves my tail.)
Second, the CLB is a bit slack of late due to distractions such as cancer. Please hang with us.

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Anonymous (not verified) | November 20, 2007 - 2:32pm

Your article is very misleading; a lot of people have plenty of options for free recycling - especially people living in the Twin Cities. A search on google.com could easily have provided you with the information below (I would have expected a blogger would be good at internet research).

HP, Apple, and Dell have all pledged to recycle computers in the US. Dell will recycle all Dell equipment for free - go to http://www.dell.com/content/topics/global.aspx/corp/environment/en/recycling_main?c=us&l=en&s=corp
If you make a purchase at Dell, they will send you a "kit" for recycling any equipment; they'll pay shipping costs and recycle for free.

(There have also been reports that Dell will recycle any computer equipment (see for example http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/29/technology/29recycle.html?_r=1&oref=slogin), even if you haven't made a purchase of Dell equipment, although Dell's website doesn't say this (you could call Dell and ask).

Free computer equipment is available in the Twin Cities area.
http://www.co.hennepin.mn.us/portal/site/HCInternet/menuitem.3f94db53874f9b6f68ce1e10b1466498/?vgnextoid=3de3c95fa29fc010VgnVCM1000000f094689RCRD
Download the brochure which says that residents of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, Washington. They do not accept from residents of Wright and Sherburne counties. Bring your drivers license - they scan it to ensure you don't bring in more than is allowed on an annual basis.

I don't know what happens to the equipment taken in via these drop-off sites, but one could easily find out by calling Hennepin County, and if it's not recycled in the US, a person with access to the media could easily write an article asking people to write and demand that it be recycled in the US!

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susan | November 21, 2007 - 2:29am

Well, thanks, I guess. I do know about some of these other drop sites and services and I've used them. We've also given or sold some of our tech stuff to our friends and kids. I didn't mean to imply that this eCycle event at the mall was the only option.
In an opinion piece you're given a little leeway, poetic license of a sort, to make your point.
My point was that even when we think we're recycling responsibly, it turns out that maybe we're not. I've used some of the recycling services you name, but I admit that it never occured to me to ask any of them exactly what they do with the stuff we've brought in, or where they do it.

My other point was that we worry about our oil addiction and other toxic habits, but we tend not to worry about the enviro impact of our tech habit, as it seems so "clean." I was astonished at how much stuff piled up so quickly at the eCycle event. (And how much I had to add to the problem.)

And I was also was playing with the irony that the traffic was diverted away from the drop site into the Mall of America, the temple of consumption.
It was mainly a light hearted piece, with a bit of info that was new, at least, to me. I really just assumed that once I got my stuff to a collection point, I'd done my part.
I did research more, and discovered which 8 states have regs on this, and why the EPA is dragging it's feet, but I am limited to roughly 600 word in my op-eds, so all of that cannot be covered is such a tight format.
So all I was trying to do was sound the alarm and let people know that they need to pay attention. That it's not enough to dump the stuff in Bloomington, MN and drive away.
As for access to the media, I'm just a freelance opinion writer. But sometimes what I write is the spark that inspires the more in-depth articles you suggest.
In this case, however, I think the problem of recycling tech waste is much bigger than simply demanding it be recyled in the US. It's a question of reducing the toxic goop going into the gear in the first place, something HP and others have pledged to do, as well as reducing the amount of stuff we crave and toss out. Whether it's being recycled in Malaysia or Maryland doesn't much matter to me, as long as it's being done in a way that is safe -- for the workers and for the planet.

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Anonymous (not verified) | November 21, 2007 - 7:23am

In an opinion piece you're given a little leeway, poetic license of a sort, to make your point.

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