Our usual assumptions about recycling aren't always right when it comes to electronics.
Recyling is usually done by backyard industries.
They use primitive processes with no environmental controls.
OK, you've bought your new laptop. Now, what do with that old clunker of a desktop? The green thing to do would be to recycle it, right? We're pretty conditioned to consider that option since we do it for plastic bottles and aluminum cans. So why not recycle the plastics and metals in old computers? Well, it turns out that our usual assumptions about recycling aren't always right when it comes to electronics.
For starters, many computers and other electronics are shipped to developing countries, including Indonesia, China and India for recycling. Lower wages, higher demand for used products and lower environmental protections mean that turning around old computers and their materials for sale run a profit there. (In the United States and Europe, it's usually a net cost.)
But, the recycling industry is a double-edged sword for the developing world. On one hand it provides jobs and increases availability to affordable used computers. On the other hand, it's typically done by backyard industries that use primitive processes with no environmental controls. Workers come into direct contact with potentially dangerous materials such as dioxins and lead. Precious metals are leached from circuit boards using acids and cyanide, which in addition to being dangerous chemicals, mobilize lead and other toxins contained within.
Some argue that we should remove these toxic materials from electronics altogether in order to protect workers abroad. This would help, but some toxins, which don't exist in the product, are actually generated during the recycling processes. For example, in order to retrieve copper encased in insulated wire, workers heap the wire into a huge pile and burn it to remove the plastic casing. This emits many toxins, including dioxins that are carcinogenic.
So there are problems with recycling in the developing world. What about in the United States? There's a lot of activity to make recycling laws for electronics out of the fear is that people will chose the alternative option -- dumping the items in the trash -- and the toxic materials inside, such as lead and mercury, will leach out of landfills and contaminate groundwater.
Colleagues and I at Arizona State University recently surveyed the scientific literature on landfills and were surprised to find no evidence of past problems with toxic e-waste leaching, nor did we find any clues suggesting that future risk of leaching would be significant. In the end, it's probably not a bad thing to recycle electronics if done right. Moving the industry from the backyard to a place that uses modern methods, such as conventional smelters, could go a long way toward reducing harm and pollution.
So what's the alternative? In short, extend the lifespan of your computer. If you use a computer longer or can find another home for it when you don't need it anymore, you'll replace production of a new computer. (Did you know that it requires about 600 pounds of fossil fuel -- about 12 times the weight of the computer -- to manufacture a desktop computer with a CRT monitor?) There are donation agencies that accept old computers and fix them up to give to schools and other people who don't have one. The environmental benefit of this is far better than recycling in most cases.
In the end, I hope that people will think more about how to reuse their old computer and other electronics and that policy makers will take action to address informal recycling in developing countries.
Eric Williams is a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University in Tempe. He helps run the IT and Environment Initiative and has testified at a hearing on e-waste held by the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology. His views are not necessarily the views of Discovery News Tech.