Hey, e-waster

How not to be a loser when it comes to disposing electronic goods responsibly.

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By  Administrator Published  March 21, 2007

The world has begun to wake-up to the reality that something has to be done about the growing amount of e-waste as we discard old computers and electronic equipment. IT Weekly looks at what is being done to try and combat the problem.

Have you ever wondered where discarded computers, monitors, keyboards, printers and other electronic equipment go? While some find themselves in recycling centres or as part of a contemporary junk art exhibit, sadly all too many end up carelessly strewn in overflowing landfills where they are either burned or abandoned. According to a UN report, about 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of electronic waste are churned out globally each year. A large portion of that waste is shipped to developing and third world countries, such as China, India and Nigeria, where it poses serious threats to both the environment and to people. In Nigeria alone — which is fast becoming the world’s PC dumping ground — at least 100,000 computers arrive at the port of Lagos every month, according to a recent study by the Basel Action Network.

And just how dangerous is this electronic waste? According to industry body the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a typical PC is made up of hundreds of harmful chemicals, including lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, respiratory illness, and reproductive problems, and are especially dangerous because of their ability to travel long distances through air and water and accumulate in our bodies and the environment.

Fortunately, there are several “green” policies currently being enforced to ensure that electronic products are safe to manufacture, use and dispose. The European Union, for instance, has adopted two directives regarding electronic products: the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and the RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances).

WEEE aims to minimise the amount of electronic waste ending up in landfills by requiring manufacturers to finance the collection, treatment, and recovery of waste electrical equipment, and by obliging distributors to allow consumers to return their waste equipment free of charge.

The RoHS directive, on the other hand, regulates the dismantling and recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment by restricting the use of hazardous substances in their manufacture.

Meanwhile, another proposed EU policy is currently being worked on, that, if passed, would create the world’s toughest regulatory framework. Reach, short for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals, aims to identify and phase out the most harmful chemicals, replacing them with safer alternatives.

While both WEEE and RoHS serve as guidelines to help vendors properly tackle the issue of electronic waste, several PC manufacturers have adopted additional in-house policies to further strengthen their green computing initiatives.

“Even before all this legislation came around, Dell already had a list of banned and restricted chemicals,” says Lena Pripp-Kovac, head of Dell’s corporate responsibility in EMEA. Dell’s third-party suppliers, she adds, are required to comply with the list, which contains over 50 restricted substances, to ensure that no harmful substances are introduced in any of Dell’s products.

“It [the list] is very specific and includes details referring to particles per million limits because we don’t want a component to be contaminated even in small amounts,” Pripp-Kovac says. “In addition, we take in declarations from our suppliers to confirm that such substances do not exist. We do random testing as well,” she adds.

Fujitsu Siemens Computers (FSC) has also deployed its own ‘Green PC’ initiative, which regulates the amount of toxic substances used in the manufacture of its computers.

“Our Green PC principles constantly spur us on to optimise not just our products but also our product development, production and recycling processes on the basis of environment-friendly criteria,” says Hans-Georg Riegler-Rittner, vice president of total quality management at FSC.

For instance, FSC has avoided the use of substances containing halogen, allowing the vendor to eliminate the use of BFRs in all parts of its PC housings and mechanical parts. “That goes beyond the requirements of the RoHS directive,” Riegler-Rittner stresses.

“We have also reduced the chlorine and bromine content in the PCBs (printed circuit boards) of all products in the Green line from 12% to 0.15%,” he adds. “We are working with suppliers to reduce halogens and replace them with suitable alternatives.”

Meanwhile, notebook manufacturer Toshiba has embraced a radical approach to product development, which it calls “design to green.”

The new design concept, according to Manuel Linning, director for analyst and press relations for Toshiba Computer Systems in EMEA, includes such steps as reducing the number of screws used in a computer by half and redesigning the motherboard to about half its original size.

“One advantage of that is if they are smaller, they are not directly attached to the edge of the notebook, which means that if the notebook falls it does not hit the motherboard. As a result, you will experience less failure, and you will have less to worry about when it comes to recycling. Also, the smaller you make them, the lesser materials you use,” Linning elaborates.

Linning hopes that, one day, PC manufacturers will be able to use more environmentally friendly materials, although he admits that such a goal will not happen in the near future. “I don’t think we are there yet.

We need to test such organic materials first, and it normally takes about 10 years to test a substance. The thing you do not want to happen is for the material to start decomposing at the start of the product cycle,” Linning says.

Pripp-Kovac agrees. “The most difficult part is to actually find a substance that is better, and some things are going to take longer than others to develop,” she says. “[But] it is very, very important for companies like Dell to continue to do their research on that area. You can talk about what you take out, but you also have to talk about what you put in instead, what the alternatives are.”

Another key priority among vendors is the establishment of their own recycling facilities. Dell’s recycling programme for both consumers and business users includes a free pick-up of their equipment from their homes or offices. Since 2004, the company has also offered free recycling of any brand of computer or printer if the customer has bought a new Dell system.

“It is sort of ‘an old for new’ principle, where if you buy a new one, we will get rid of your old one. We are giving our customers the alternative to get rid of their old products,” Pripp-Kovac says.

FSC’s Riegler-Rittner says that in the firm’s recycling centre in Paderborn, Germany, it follows a three-step process when dealing with waste equipment. This includes the refurbishing of old computers for remarketing, repairing parts or assemblies of old PCs for future use (but not, he emphasises, in the manufacture of new equipment), and the disassembly and reclassification of equipment for recycling by certified partners.

He claims that FSC’s recycling method is both effective and efficient; so much so that, by the end of the day, the proportion of materials or substances that cannot be recycled or incinerated is reduced to just 2%.

The number of waste equipment that needs to be recycled, however, far exceeds the current capacity of recycling facilities in the world. Of course, it does not help that today’s market has a penchant for “bigger, better and newer” things — which, obviously, accelerates the lifecycle of older equipment.

As consumers, we need to make a conscious effort to be responsible users of electronic goods. Be aware of the issues, ask questions, conserve energy, recycle — and when you are tempted to buy that newly-released mobile phone or laptop that is calling you from a shop’s display window, you might want to think twice, because your decision could either help make or break the planet that we live in.

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