Report criticizes U.S. hardware recycling practices

The U.S. may be a global leader in information technology, but the nation’s IT industry apparently trails many other countries in the safe disposal of obsolete and toxin-filled computers and monitors discarded each year.

That’s the conclusion of the third annual Computer Report Card, released today by the nonprofit environmental group Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. The San Jose, Calif.-based organization is calling on hardware vendors to build devices using safer materials that can be more easily recycled when they’re obsolete.

Ted Smith, executive director of the coalition, said such changes are needed to reduce the amount of toxic materials – including lead and mercury – being sent to the nation’s landfills in trashed computers, monitors and related devices. The problem, he said, is that the chemicals and materials used to build the machines become major pollution liabilities when the devices are thrown away.

In Europe and Japan, IT manufacturers have strict laws requiring them to use safer materials when they build the components and regimented programs to take the devices back from customers so proper recycling and disposal can be done, he said.

“The U.S. computer industry is falling further and further behind their international competition when it comes to designing greener equipment,” Smith said. “We find this very distressing.”

The group has issued its annual report card to try and boost public and industry awareness of a problem that continues to worsen, he said.

A computer monitor typically contains four to eight pounds of lead, which is known to cause many health problems for humans, especially young children. Lead and other toxic materials placed in landfills can eventually leach into groundwater, causing health problems for the general public. Computer equipment burned in solid waste incinerators can also cause problems because of the chemical fumes that can be released, Smith said.

By 2004, an estimated 500 million computers could be disposed of in the U.S. in landfills.

So far, companies have been hesitant to implement “green” programs here because they say U.S. consumers and the government don’t demand such changes, according to Smith. Only a few communities, in California and Massachusetts, have established tough recycling requirements for obsolete computer hardware.

For the situation to change, Smith said, businesses must demand system components that don’t contain toxins and must insist that hardware vendors properly dispose of their old equipment as part of any sales deals to replace the hardware. “If they start acting on this information, it’s going to be felt in the marketplace,” he said.

David Wood, a spokesman for the Athens, Ga.-based nonprofit GrassRoots Recycling Network, said in a statement that “consumers in the U.S. are receiving second-class treatment from high-tech companies that think they’re first-class global companies.”

In its announcement, the Coalition said that IBM Corp. has offered product take-back programs free-of-charge since 1989 in European countries, where required by law. But in the U.S., the group said, IBM charges consumers US$29.99 to recycle computer equipment, making participation less likely.

Apple Computer of Germany provides a take-back program where customers can return electronic appliances at no charge, but offers no such program to U.S. consumers, according to the Coalition.