Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified Eric Williams, who was quoted in the column. He is a faculty member at the Rochester Institute of Technology, not a student at the University of Florida. This version has been corrected.
My TiVo died last week, but I won’t burden you with my sob story. The more important issue is what to do with the body.
My TiVo is a classic piece of electronic waste. It has a hard drive, a motherboard, a power supply and lots of metal and plastic bits. How to deal with outdated or defective computers, smartphones, tablets and similar e-waste is an increasingly urgent topic. Twenty states have made it illegal to dump e-waste into landfills.
There are two justifications for these bans. The first is somewhat controversial.
“[E-waste] contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and beryllium,” notes Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, an NGO focused on toxic waste. The concern is that these substances could leach into the groundwater. “Lead can cause nervous system disorders, mental retardation, brain dysfunction, especially in children,” he adds.
A growing number of environmental engineers, however, argue that the danger of contamination from electronic waste is small. The initial tests showing that a motherboard is prone to release its lead in a landfill were done in a laboratory using ground-up equipment submerged in acetic acid. Landfills, however, bear exceedingly little resemblance to a laboratory.
A 2008 study in Florida found that the increase in lead content of leachate — that nasty liquid at the bottom of the landfill pile — after adding electronic waste was statistically insignificant. In addition, modern landfills are reasonably efficient at removing lead from leachate.
Still, Puckett argues, “[engineered landfills] cannot guarantee that over long periods of time. We need to keep our groundwater safe for hundreds and thousands of years.”
The less controversial argument for keeping e-waste out of landfills is the same argument made for other waste: It could be put to better use. If we landfill such valuable materials as gold, silver and palladium (not to mention aluminum, steel and plastic), we have to continually mine more virgin materials.
In addition, manufacturing electronics from scratch requires a massive amount of energy.
“Think about an aluminum can,” says Eric Williams, a faculty member at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Most of the embedded energy goes into mining the aluminum, and just a tiny amount into manufacturing the can. A computer is the opposite.”
According to a 2004 study by Williams, the fossil fuels required to manufacture a computer weigh 11 times as much as the computer itself. Manufacturing an automobile, by contrast, requires only twice the product’s weight in fossil fuels. Placing your old computer in a landfill — legally or not — eliminates the possibility that all or part of the machine could be repurposed, which could save a considerable amount of energy.
I would love to give good old TiVo a new lease on life through recycling, perhaps reusing the hard drive to serve a child in the developing world. But is it possible? If I dropped the machine off with a reputable recycler, the answer is yes.
When a conscientious recycler receives a load of used electronics, the first pass is an inspection for keepers. A 2008 computer might be junk to you, but there are plenty of people around the world who would be happy to pay more than its scrap value to have it. Even if the device is worth little in its entirety, there may be RAM chips, hard drives or other components that still have value. There’s no sense in reducing these things to dust.
But even the dust is worth something. After hazardous materials such as nickel-cadmium batteries are removed, the rest of the device is sent whole through shredders that can turn a computer into tiny, tiny bits. Then, the recycler separates those bits into single-material buckets of aluminum, copper, steel, plastic, etc. Those can be sold.
Electronics recycling has a darker side, though. So-called backyard recycling is common in India, China, Indonesia and other developing countries. The workers are often children, and the methods of their employers are damaging to the environment and human health. Many facilities simply dip parts into cyanide to extract valuable materials, then dump the cyanide onto the ground or into the water supply. Rather than strip the insulation from copper wires, they burn the wires in large piles, releasing dioxins and furans into the air. Studies in China have shown that recycling workers have elevated levels of lead in their blood, and the air beyond the recycling facility itself is polluted with dioxins.
As with too many environmental issues, you may have to spend a little time to do the right thing here. Few localities offer curbside electronics recycling; this puts the burden on you to take unwanted equipment to a recycler or a retailer that accepts old devices. Before you do, though, find out where they send the equipment. Look for the Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards certification or the R2 Solutions certification, which both ensure proper treatment.
Hopefully our children won’t have to worry about this. The National Science Foundation is funding research into sustainable electronics production. “We’re thinking about circuit boards and casings made of biopolymers,” says Carol Handwerker of Purdue University, who is leading the project. “Instead of glass, how about nanocellulose, a byproduct of the process to make paper?”
The biodegradable computer: coming soon.