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Toxic metals danger in your computer

Paul Lashmar
Sunday 19 March 2000 01:00 GMT

Millions of redundant computers and their highly toxic components are storing up a huge hidden environmental problem for Britain. If action is not taken soon, campaigners say, the country will have billions of pounds of contaminants in its soil.

Millions of redundant computers and their highly toxic components are storing up a huge hidden environmental problem for Britain. If action is not taken soon, campaigners say, the country will have billions of pounds of contaminants in its soil.

Computers contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium, all carcinogenic and not easily degraded. At present there is no system for dealing with such material, and a pioneering European directive to tackle the problem is being fought by the US government and the electronics industry. It is now more than a year behind schedule.

The full scale of the potential pollution nightmare can be judged from the US experience. Environmental campaigners Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition estimates that 315 million computers will have become become "e-junk" in the US by 2004. These computers will contain 1.2 billion pounds of lead, two million pounds of cadmium, and 400,000 pounds of mercury. In addition there will be four billion pounds of environmentally unfriendly plastic.

"More than three-quarters of all computers ever bought in the US are stored in people's homes because they don't know what to do with them," said Ted Smith, the coalition's executive director. "If everyone threw them out at once we would have a mile-high waste mountain of junked computers the size of a football field. There is a clear lack of information given to North American consumers about recycling or disposal options for our obsolete computers."

Mike Childs of Friends of the Earth says the same thing is happening in Britain. Experts estimate that more than 130,000 tonnes of computer-related waste is thrown out each year, with only a small percentage recycled. "Most people don't know that there are hazardous chemicals in computers and do not realise they are building up an environment problem for the future." Mr Childs said. "People do feel bad about putting such large pieces of equipment in the rubbish but they do not know what to do with them."

Most domestic and many business computers end up in landfill sites. Mr Childs said: "This is a huge pollution problem and waste of potential resources. In the landfill sites there is the danger that the heavy metals will leach into underground water. If we let that happen, we are just passing toxic parcels from generation to generation."

Incineration of old computers can also produce high concentrations of metals and dioxins. The dangers do not end there. Apart from toxic heavy metals, computers are made mainly from PVC, which creates more environmental and health hazards than most other types of plastic.

Claire Snow, of the London-based Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER), said: "We did a survey for the Corporation of London that showed that big City organisations such as Bank of England, Stock Exchange and NatWest type of people no longer throw old computers into skips. IT equipment in commercial operation - a lot of that is going to a recycler, but what is recycled varies greatly."

Much electronic scrap is already recycled in order to reclaim precious metals such as gold, but they form as little as 1 per cent of the content and in many cases the rest is sent off as waste.

The response of the EU's environmental directorate was a directive known as WEEE (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment). This would require manufacturers to organise collection and recycling of their old computers. The directive also proposes that mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium and two classes of brominated flame retardants should be phased out by 2004. It puts full financial responsibility on producers to set up collection recycling and disposal systems. At least 70 per cent by weight of all collected equipment must be recycled. Recycling will not include incineration.

A final draft should have been ready a year ago, but will not now be ready until Easter. It will then take another 18 to 24 months to pass through the European Parliament. Even then, the US electronics industry may challenge it in the courts as breaching World Trade Organisation and Gatt agreements. They also maintain that it would could cost $50bn to implement.

The US Trade Representative, Charlee Barshefsky, has supported the electronics industry's objections. But Beverley Thorpe, campaign organiser of the Clean Computer Campaign in the US which has the slogan "Just say no to e-waste", says: "We believe that the WEEE can be a model. If it passed in Europe, it can have huge impacts here in the US."

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