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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 December 2006, 00:08 GMT
Dealing with toxic computer waste
By Yo Takatsuki
Business reporter, BBC World Service

An unfortunate by-product of today's fast-moving digital age is the obsolescent equipment that gets discarded in its wake.

Mountain of old computers
Old computers look harmless but may contain toxic substances

One estimate suggests that by 2010, 100m phones and 300m personal computers will be thrown on the rubbish tip.

Most of these contain toxic cocktail of substances including lead, mercury and arsenic.

At the moment a lot of this waste ends up, often illegally, in dumping sites around the globe, especially in the developing world.

The European Union is working on new laws to encourage the safe disposal of what is called e-waste.

It is drafting a Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive that will ensure that more of the responsibility for dealing with old computers and mobiles will be placed on their manufacturers.

Deadly poison

Dangerous computer parts
1: Lead in cathode ray tube and solder
2: Arsenic in older cathode ray tubes
5: Antimony trioxide as flame retardant
4: Polybrominated flame retardants in plastic casings, cables and circuit boards
3: Selenium in circuit boards as power supply rectifier
6: Cadmium in circuit boards and semiconductors
7: Chromium in steel as corrosion protection
8: Cobalt in steel for structure and magnetism
9: Mercury in switches and housing

Computers and mobile phones contain a large variety of chemicals and plastics which can cause serious harm if not dealt with correctly.

Eric Karofsky from AMR Research advises companies about getting rid of such troublesome waste.

"There are all sorts of problems. These are toxic materials that need to be collected and recycled appropriately.

"If not, they are severe environmental hazards for both the population that lives near landfills as well as the world."

"Ideally an approved collector will accept it," Mr Karofsky adds. "They will erase data on the hard drive or destroy it physically."

He feels that unless companies are punished there will always be computer waste ending up illegally dumped in Africa, India and China.

"Until severe financial penalties are levied upon the brands, these laws will not help much."

Recycle frequency

A 2005 study by the environmental group Greenpeace found that as much as 47% of waste found at 18 European seaports was illegal, much of it toxic and headed for export.

The computer industry is increasingly waking up to the need to control where its products end up when their useful life is over.

Dumped computers in India
Electronic waste often ends up in developing world dumping sites

Some computers are recycled and re-fitted to be sold on as second-hand equipment, often to people in developing countries.

Computer giant Dell has introduced a programme that helps its customers get rid of their old computers free of charge.

They employ partner companies to organize the disposal of products in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.

"It is definitely a challenging area for us as producers. Dell has developed a standard we work to in terms of the partners we use," says Jean Cox-Kurns of Dell Computers.

"The greatest concern our customers have apart from where our computers end up, is how their data will be managed."

"What our programme allows us to do is to track the equipment all the way through the process."

Many people currently upgrade their computer when only one aspect of their current PC becomes outdated.

Dell is hoping to create products that allows users to upgrade parts of the machine rather than all of it.

"There's a greater demand for the latest and greatest all of the time," Ms. Kurns says.

"We're continuously looking at designs and ways to perhaps build in a modular structure to computers.

"That way, even if the whole computer isn't suitable maybe parts of it can continue to be used."

New life for old computers
30 Oct 04 |  Wales
Computers 'must be greener'
08 Mar 04 |  Technology
Growing concern over India's e-waste
12 Dec 03 |  South Asia

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