More selfishness

Many of you agreed with my comments about the selfish nature of the Internet.

But while we’re taking stock of our ethics, let me point out another area where we have displayed tremendous selfishness: how we dispose of unwanted PCs and cell phones.

The sheer volume of these thrown-away high-tech devices has become a serious threat to the environment. Worse still is the fact that we’re only just starting to take the first small steps to face an issue that has been, out of self-interest, ignored by the computer industry and politicians for decades.

The problem is that PCs and cell phones, along with products such as televisions, cause serious pollution because of the neurotoxins and carcinogens that are used and released in their production and released when they are disposed of.

These pollutants include really serious long-term environmental concerns such as lead and beryllium that get carried into waterways and pollute the air through burning or dust released when high-tech products are broken up. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that high-tech products are responsible for about 40 percent of the lead in U.S. landfills.

And that’s just the disposal side of the equation. The United Nations University (USU) in Tokyo conducted a study last year that looked at the environmental impact of PCs. It determined that a desktop computer and a 17-inch CRT monitor together require at least 529 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals and 3,306 pounds of water to manufacture.

A previous USU study also found that production of one 2-gram 32M-byte Dynamic RAM memory chip alone requires 3.7 pounds of fossil fuels and chemicals along with a staggering 71 pounds of water (about eight gallons).

So how much electronic gear do we throw away? According to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER), Americans dispose of 2 million tons of electronic products each year, which include 50 million computers and 130 million cell phones! By 2010, the IAER estimates that will rise to about 400 million electronic units annually.

So where do we throw our e-trash? Well, not here, not in our own country. Oh no, we have been dumping most of it, quite selfishly, in China.

Of course had the U.S. ratified the 1992 Basel Convention, an international treaty to control the export of hazardous waste, we would have had to deal with our own e-trash. The U.S. is the only developed country that hasn’t ratified the treaty. Why? Because it was less expensive to destroy the Chinese environment.

At the same time, the pollution level we are experiencing at home from the small amount of waste that doesn’t make it to China is easily ignored. Easily ignored even though not one person reading this would be happy about it in his backyard.

That’s because most end users, consumers and businesses alike, are not aware of the problem. But you know industry and government have been aware of the issues for years.Now the toxins from e-waste are already in our local environments. They are damaging our ecosystems, the food chain and our children.

How can you, as IT professionals, change this? One of the simplest things is to slow the PC replacement cycle. Hold on to those PCs for an extra year, hell, for just six months! Start looking at where your cast off machines go and make sure it is an environmentally wise choice.

We also need to support legislative initiatives. Could we support a mandated surcharge with each computer purchase? Sure we could. But will we? Will we extend the life of PCs? Will we foot the bill to ensure that we damage neither the Chinese environment nor our own?

That all depends on how selfish we are. To date, our track record isn’t looking good.

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