Into the Silicon Valley of Death

Each year, 100 million new computers are sold, and millions of obsolete ones, many only a few years old, are discarded by their users. But disposing of them safely is far harder than it sounds. Matthew Sweet considers one of the world's fastest growing problems
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The Independent Online

Old computers never die. They just leach heavy metals into our drinking water. That's the worst-case scenario, anyway. Some of them just sit in the loft or the shed, quietly accumulating dust and obsolescence. Others - a very, very few - are refurbished or recycled. The vast majority, however, are being buried in the ground. Over a million of the things, each year - and that's a conservative estimate. And if you think that's the best place for them, consider this: each desktop PC unit - the one I'm using to write this, the one your children use for their maths homework - contains up to 18lb of lead (mostly hidden in the monitor's heavily leaded screen). Other toxic substances, too - cadmium, mercury, dioxins - but for the moment, let's concentrate on the lead. You may need a computer to do the sum: 8,165 metric tonnes of poisonous residue spread under the topsoil of the British Isles every 12 months, granulated in a mulch of eggshells, banana skins and mutton bones. Include the lead waste from other dumped

Old computers never die. They just leach heavy metals into our drinking water. That's the worst-case scenario, anyway. Some of them just sit in the loft or the shed, quietly accumulating dust and obsolescence. Others - a very, very few - are refurbished or recycled. The vast majority, however, are being buried in the ground. Over a million of the things, each year - and that's a conservative estimate. And if you think that's the best place for them, consider this: each desktop PC unit - the one I'm using to write this, the one your children use for their maths homework - contains up to 18lb of lead (mostly hidden in the monitor's heavily leaded screen). Other toxic substances, too - cadmium, mercury, dioxins - but for the moment, let's concentrate on the lead. You may need a computer to do the sum: 8,165 metric tonnes of poisonous residue spread under the topsoil of the British Isles every 12 months, granulated in a mulch of eggshells, banana skins and mutton bones. Include the lead waste from other dumped electronic equipment, and the total rises to around 27,000 tonnes - sitting below ground upon which new houses may one day be built, and through which water pipes will be laid. Bear in mind that - as even the most casual PC-users will have noticed - each new generation of computers is superseded more swiftly than the last. And you will gather that, while this may seem a slow-burning environmental problem, it is heating up rapidly.

In a steel hangar on an industrial estate in Hertfordshire, one company is trying to address the problem, and, in the process, doing very nicely out of it. Technical Asset Management began as a one-room outfit over a sweet shop in Welwyn Garden City, and now has an annual turnover of £15m. It offers its clients the safe extraction and disposal of the toxic nasties lurking within their decommissioned computers, and the secure destruction of any sensitive data. Among their clients are GCHQ and - since a hard drive containing details of Paul McCartney's bank account made its way from a second-hand dealer to the Daily Express - Deutsche Morgan Grenfell.

A visit to the TAM warehouse is a surreal experience. It's like paddling in a Sargasso Sea of obsolete technology. You see shoals of keyboards beached on the concrete floor; piles of nicotine-yellowed hard drives, spotted with the stains left by adhesive gonks and security tags; pallets of grimy mice; crates stacked with fragments of acid-green circuitry; keyboards filleted from laptops, flimsy and forlorn, like those fishbones that Top Cat used to truffle out of his dustbin. Seeing a heap of computers, disembowelled by the thousand in a featureless concrete bay, exerts a weird kind of culture shock. You feel like some old colonial who's happened upon a massacre of slaves, their bright innards unspooled on the ground.

Of this material 80 per cent can, after a scrub-down, be returned to use, or cannibalised for spare parts. The remainder is exported to plants in France and Mexico which specialise in reclaiming useful chemical and metal elements from technological trash. And what these companies can't use is crunched up and landfilled.

However, what generates the big bucks for TAM is data destruction. As the complexity of the disposal process indicates, computers aren't a cash-rich scrap purchase. Although PCs contain small amounts of gold and other valuable elements - one US survey estimated that the landfilling of computer equipment resulted in the annual burial of 120,000 tonnes of precious metals - they are difficult to extract profitably. According to a report by the Gartner Group of consultants, the true cost of disposing of an unwanted PC is around £450 - which may be the reason why the press stories that circulated five or so years ago about hi-tech totters getting rich quick by strip-mining piles of decommissioned computers for their gold content have now ceased. And the more recent the machine, the smaller the amount of precious metal it contains.

Jon Godfrey, co-founder and sales manager of TAM, is certain that nobody has yet developed a method for recycling computers into profitable raw materials. "Waste costs," he contends. "If you're scrapping 5,000 computer systems, the chances of getting a cheque back at the end of the day are actually quite slim. By the time you consider the logistics, the processing, the secure data removal, the logging and recording of all these units for financial reasons, you're probably going to end up with a bill. For people to accept that fact, it's going to require a huge change of attitude."

A new tract of European law, however, is set to catalyse that process. An imminent EU directive relating to the disposal of electric and electronic waste, expected to be incorporated into law by the end of next year, will make manufacturers and retailers responsible for the problem - so that when you buy a new PC from a high-street store, they will be obliged to take back your old one and dispose of it safely. And the law won't just cover computers. Any electric or electronic equipment - broken Gameboys, lard-clogged deep-fat fryers, burnt-out tanning beds - will return to the places from which they were originally bought. These companies all lobbied against the clauses, as the cost of welcoming back this equipment will oblige them to set up schemes that will effectively double the size of their operations. For every shiny new item neatly packed in a bed of polystyrene and cardboard, they will receive a broken-down model in a plastic bag. And they won't be allowed to pass the cost on to the consumer - or not in any obvious way, at least.

Most of the electronics retailers are now scheduling slightly panicky meetings with the Department of Trade & Industry, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and ICER - the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling - to work out strategies to deal with this flood of electronic junk. Claire Snow, director of ICER, has been studying a leaked draft of the directive. She rehearses some of the questions being debated: "What am I going to do with this stuff? Where am I going to put it? Who's going to manage the collection of this stuff? Are they going to sort equipment, or are they just going to pile it all up somewhere?" She can understand their worries: "It's going to add a lot to costs. They've got to find storage space, change their distribution systems, everything." A total of 100 million PCs were sold worldwide last year - a huge swathe of that total may soon be returning to the retailer.

If the directive is translated into a sufficiently stringent law, there's a small hope that it will discourage computer manufacturers from designing speedy obsolescence into their machines - which a recent slowing in PC sales indicates is already irritating consumers. And it might, at the very least, encourage them to use recycled materials in the construction of new units. No computer yet contains a single biodegradable component, and, so far, no computer firm has attempted to emulate BMW - which uses recycled metal, plastic, and natural materials such as hemp in the manufacture of new cars - to create a less environmentally obnoxious PC. If manufacturers and retailers are forced to take responsibility for their own obsolete products, they will have to give some thought to these problems.

But the directive is likely to reach the statute books long before such questions have been resolved. The central difficulty is this: there are only a handful of firms in the UK which are capable of carrying out this kind of work on a large scale - stripping the machines for reusable components or valuable metal elements, extracting and storing the toxic chemicals inside them. And their services are expensive.

There are, however, cheaper, less ethical options. Firms affected by the new legislation may choose to ship the offending material to America or the Third World, where rules about what you may or may not stuff in a hole in the ground are less strict than in EU countries. Donating more recent models to schools is another possibility - it has the PR-friendly consequence of allowing British schoolchildren the chance to master slightly outmoded Windows programs, and also passes on the ultimate responsibility for their disposal to underfunded local authorities. Schemes like this are booming, although schools and charities are starting to refuse to act as a dumping ground for industrial waste. Few will now accept a machine without a Pentium processor - anything slower won't run any educational software worth having.

If donation or overseas disposal prove unviable, companies may simply start piling up old PCs at home, in the cheapest storage facilities they can find. The warehouse spaces of economically depressed British towns may fill with the stacked casualties of technological change. They will become mausoleums of unfashionable machinery: technocophagi. The day of the computer mountain is on its way. "Under the new laws," Claire Snow argues, "all of these units can still be shredded up. But it may well lead to a mountain of material that we can't do anything with, because we're not allowed to burn it, and can't recycle it."

There are also security issues involved. Secrecy has been one of the greatest barriers to effective recycling, as firms with sensitive information stored on their old PCs have been inclined to crunch them up and bury them - even though consigning something to destruction, as opposed to over-writing confidential files, is one of the leakiest ways in which to deal with the problem. There is an informal trade in business data lifted from abandoned PCs, and it's impossible to calculate how much industrial espionage may be conducted in this way. Jon Godfrey estimates that tens of millions of second-hand computer systems available on the open market contain commercially sensitive data. It's not just MI6 laptops that go astray. Recently, the Inland Revenue discarded scores of computers which still held details of staff payrolls. Although he won't reveal the details of the case, Godfrey recently gave a well-known merchant bank a nasty shock when TAM recovered a batch of files from a hard disk which the company thought they had obliterated. "We had information which would have trashed their share price," he recalls, relishing the memory. "We just invited them in and put the information up on a screen in front of them. They were horrified. They wouldn't leave the room until we had physically destroyed the disk."

The Paul McCartney incident is a good illustration of how easily confidential data can find its way into the market-place. The ex-Morgan Grenfell PC obtained from a car-boot sale by the Express and Channel 4 News contained more than 5,000 files dated from 1990 to 1998, which included memos, e-mails and tables containing details of clients' account numbers and share transactions. There were 108 files on the McCartney account, and other sensitive details relating to the financial affairs of the Cancer Research Campaign, the International Association of Odd Fellows and - just to make the lapse a little more piquant - a duchess. "They were lucky that it was discovered by journalists," says Godfrey, "and not someone who really wanted to inflict damage upon them."

It is the secrecy of computer manufacturers themselves, however, which forms one of the toughest obstacles to effective recycling. The chemical cocktail that sloshes about behind the glass of the new generation of flatscreen monitors, for instance, is a mystery to those outside the firms who make them. "We simply don't know what's in them," explains Godfrey. "We've been trying to persuade the manufacturers to tell us, but they see it as a commercial secret. We're quite happy to restrict the knowledge of the recipe, but if you don't know what a product is made of, you can't recycle it." (The same problem exists with other recent innovations now finding their way into the rubbish for the first time - the highly toxic lithium batteries from mobile phones and laptops, for instance.) As flat-screen monitors become more popular (market analysts predict that they will have supplanted the cathode-ray tube in a decade), their replacement will produce a massive upsurge in the number of obsolete VDUs entering the waste stream. The new technology may use less power, but it has a much shorter lifespan - three years compared with the 10 of the average CRT.

The toxic chemicals inside these machines, however, will have a much greater longevity. Mercury - found in circuit-breakers - can leach into soil and groundwater, and is easily absorbed by fish, through which it can reach the human end of the food chain. Cadmium - found in printed circuits and CRTs - is a carcinogen which can also damage the human renal system. Lead - found in CRTs, circuitry and soldering - is easily leached into the soil as a component of granulated electronic waste, and can damage to the endocrine and nervous systems.

There's a mournful quality about the sea of deconstructed computers lapping around the benches in the TAM warehouse: the shattered screens, the stripped carcasses, the cracked wafers of circuit board. The day I visited, it was almost empty of employees, who were all away on a training course. Walking around the place is a demonstration of how occult an object the computer has become. How, thanks to the calm power of HAL and the chuntering certitude of ERNIE - and the dependence that our working lives and our shopping trips and our banking activities have developed upon their little networked cousins - we have come to believe that these machines are somehow more than a sum of their parts. Well, they are - but not because they might start answering back and take over the world, or offer us lives free of manual labour. There is a chemical ghost in these machines - one which, if ignored for too much longer, will eventually return to haunt us all.

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