Something deadly on your desktop

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The Independent Culture
WHEN YOU get to the office this morning, have a good look at your computer. You may be sitting in front of the next environmental disaster. You desktop PC may be a ticking time bomb, according to the Industry Council for Electronic and Electrical Recycling. This is particularly true if you use a flat-panel display.

Have you ever wondered what happens to your old monitor after you get a new one? Well, in case of the flat-panels, not much, as nobody has a clue how to deal with the waste they generate. Standard monitors are recycled by specialist companies which have a process of de-manufacturing PCs and reusing the surviving elements. But this is not so easy with flat-panel monitors. Recyclers need to know the components of the hardware, but manufacturers are keeping mum about just what's inside these monitors.

The secrecy of manufacturers is highly worrying, as, according to recycling industry experts, flat monitors are likely to contain chemicals such as ammonia, chlorine and carbon tetrafluoride. IT recycling is a complicated process, and it takes a long time to develop appropriate methods of dealing with electronic waste. As long as manufacturers refuse to release full chemical specifications, your monitor is likely to be a problem waiting to happen. And it's likely to happen sooner rather than later, as flat- panel monitors have a much shorter lifespan than standard monitors.

Environmental groups are seeking legislation to force manufacturers to come clean and declare the exact contents of flat panel displays. But IT manufacturers are a powerful group, and you can safely assume they will be not give it up easily. Unless, that is, they are forced to do so by public opinion.

The issue of managing computer waste goes beyond flat-panel monitors. Every day on my way to the office, I pass by old monitors, keyboards, hard drives and other electronic rubbish left sitting on the pavement. With prices of computers coming down, the heaps of computer waste are going up. The frequency of our upgrades is increasing, as five years ago your computer would last you at least two years, while today, the average lifespan of a new machine is only eight months.

Unfortunately, the frequency of upgrades has not been matched by the recycling industry's ability to deal with the problem. What's more, many companies in the UK have no policies for IT recycling, nor contracts with computer recyclers. Thus those spooky computer scrap heaps are growing in an uncontrolled manner.

Is there anything you can do? Start by checking up on your company's IT procurement policies, and ask if they have a process in place to deal with electronic waste recycling. If not, lobby for one. Also, check which manufacturers are providing your trendy flat-panel display, and if they have provided the list of chemical components to the recycling bodies. Don't be afraid of asking questions - if you don't, no one else will. Awareness of the environmental dangers lurking in computer equipment is shockingly low among IT professionals, so your poking around and raising issues is sure to attract attention to the problem.

But don't just focus on your work environment. If you are a home user, you cand find your nearest electronic waste recycling company on the Internet. When it is time to say good-bye to your old laptop or PC, don't just wrap it up in cling film and throw it in the bin. If you pass your old friend on to the recyclers, there is a good chance that somebody else may be able to use your machine after some tweaking.

Re-use is a growing trend in the computer industry, particularly for schools and people who can't afford a new machine. Dragnet.org is one of the organisations that recycles PCs for use by disabled people, allowing them to take up home-based work.

Reduce, Re-use and Recycle are the three Rs of modern environmental thinking, and I sincerely hope that Friends of the Earth and other groups will take this up, as the age of computer waste is obviously upon us. There is a greater threat to our environment through wasteful management of IT equipment than we originally anticipated, and some environmental groups, with their technophobic attitudes, will need your help in understanding and focusing on the issue.

There is also a strong case for lobbying your MP to ensure government IT purchases are from suppliers that are clean and transparent about what lurks inside their products. You can find out more about electronic recycling issues at http://www.envirolink.org and http://www. environment-agency.gov which lists agencies that are trying to address the issue. And, as always, you can mail me with your views on the subject to eva@never.com.

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