The Global Problem of Toxic E-Trash

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We’ve all heard of planned obsolescence, making things that are designed not to last. As a result, our landfills are filling up with some pretty noxious stuff. This episode of NOW With Bill Moyers examines the latest toxic twist — the poisonous afterlife of your computers and TV sets. In 2002, some 70 million computers had already have been sent to landfills, with another 500 million more expected by 2007.

E-waste is a global problem, especially since many countries ship their toxic leftovers overseas. This episode looks at a variety of programs and legislative approaches to this new crisis.


BILL MOYERS: The television set you’re watching right now may be one of the most toxic things in your home. TV screens and computer monitors are full of lead — an average of three to eight pounds each. Exposure to lead can harm the human nervous system and cause learning problems, especially in children.

The lead embedded in a television or monitor won’t hurt you as long as it’s sitting in your living room — in fact, it’s there to help shield you from radiation. But when TVs and monitors are tossed into landfills, lead can leach out. A serious effort to safely recycle electronics is barely beginning in America. And as NOW’s NPR correspondent Emily Harris reports, keeping discarded TVs, computers, cell phones and VCRs from contaminating the environment is a struggle — in large part because of money.

EMILY HARRIS: Picture tubes. These contain the poison in your TV set and computer screen. Lead is a crucial ingredient of the glass in the tube. It’s there to protect from radiation and won’t hurt you while the tube whole. But if an old TV or monitor is just tossed in the trash, the lead can trickle out.

MARK MURRAY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CALIFORNIANS AGAINST WASTE: We’ve banned lead in paint. We’ve banned lead in our gasoline, because lead is poisonous to use. It, it damages the central nervous system. And that — the TV goes to a landfill, it gets compacted in the garbage truck. It gets crushed in a landfill. And the lead can make its way into the environment.

EMILY HARRIS: To keep lead out of landfills, picture tubes must be handled specially. In California trash haulers now separate monitors and TVs from the rest of the garbage.

Only two states, California and Massachusetts, require that computer monitors and old TVs get recycled. Anywhere else, if you throw them in the trash, they’re going to the landfill.

Twenty million computers become obsolete every year. Just over ten percent are reused or recycled.

Internet entrepreneur Kevin Welsh has founded several high-tech companies. As his needs change, he simply tosses old technology on to the discard pile.

KEVIN WELSH, FOUNDER, ANTICS ONLINE: In the past, we’ve actually called up some local schools, to see if they wanted a computer. But I guess this being silicon valley, unless it was a state of the art computer itself, they really weren’t interested. Or, unless we were donating — you know, twenty of them — they really didn’t want to inherit the problems that we were giving up.

EMILY HARRIS: Lots of other people don’t know what to do with old computers. A few months ago, Oakland resident Sophia Tselentis tried to leave one at the curb.

SOPHIA TSELENTIS, OAKLAND RESIDENT: I put out the computer, the keyboard and the monitor. And they took the keyboard and the computer, but would not take the monitor

EMILY HARRIS (ADDRESSING TSELENTIS): What did you do with that monitor?

TSELENTIS: Um, I don’t have it anymore.

HARRIS: This time, Tselentis tried to sell another old computer. She couldn’t find a buyer. Instead, she took it to a community center to fix up and give away.

DROP-OFF CENTER EMPLOYEE TO TSELENTIS: You know about the fees we charge for things?

HARRIS: It cost her twenty dollars. Other places charge as much as sixty five to accept an old TV. And since picture tubes were banned from California landfills, some taxpayers are picking up the disposal tab individuals don’t want to pay.

SUSAN KATTCHEE, RECYCLING SUPERVISOR, CITY OF OAKLAND: When the TVs and monitors got banned, one of the things that we noticed here in Oakland is that they started showing up on our streets — as sort of illegally disposed of materials and something the city now had to deal with.

We now have to send an additional crew out, with a separate truck, because the TVs and monitors have to be specially handled on the streets. They can’t just be picked up and thrown in a regular garbage truck.

And then they have to be off loaded and handled appropriately at that point. And then again, the cost of disposal.

HARRIS: Even some charities in California that once took used computers or TVs to resell them can’t afford to do that anymore. Disposal costs have outstripped potential income.

TERRY FITZPATRICK, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF OPERATIONS, GOODWILL OF GREATER EAST BAY: We used to get — this is the local Goodwill about 50 thousand dollars a year in revenue from the sale of TVs and computers. Well, since we no longer accept them due to the high cost of disposal not only have we lost that revenue source, but our costs for handling and disposing of those items has gone up as well. And that can be as high as forty thousand a year.

HARRIS: But Goodwill still gets old TV sets abandoned at its gate. Facing growing mounds of obsolete computers, full of toxic parts, California legislators are trying to figure out how to fund recycling programs. They’re negotiating adding an up front recycling fee — as much as thirty dollars — to the price of every TV and computer monitor sold in the state.

Oakland’s Susan Kattchee approves of that idea.

SUSAN KATTCHEE, RECYCLING SUPERVISOR, CITY OF OAKLAND: The cost for disposal needs to be built into the product itself, so that whoever buys or wants to use that product pays for the cost of disposal at the time they purchase it.

HARRIS: But industry is fighting fees at point of sale — fearing higher prices will slow new purchases and saying it will be difficult to enforce, especially on Internet sales. Some environmentalists say manufacturers should take back their old products and deal with the waste problem directly. Several big producers are trying to do just that. Near Sacramento, Hewlett Packard runs a center that, for a price, will take back any old computer and resell it — either whole or broken down.

RENEE ST. DENIS, BUSINESS MANAGER, PRODUCT RECYCLING UNIT, HEWLETT PACKARD: I think we have as much responsibility as anybody in the value chain.

What isn’t possible is for us to dictate what the consumer’s behavior is gonna be at the end of the product’s life. I can’t go into somebody’s house and take their old PC away. So, we have to rely on them, to have the responsibility to actually make sure these things get into the right system for recycling and disposal.

HARRIS: Hewlett Packard put ten million dollars into this facility and a similar one in Tennessee. The company says it’s worth it to know they can manage toxic waste safely. But the giant garbage company, Waste Management, says the most convenient way to set up electronic recycling is at the curb. And for recycling to really take off, there needs to be a steady stream of funding. Perhaps through garbage collection fees.

KEVIN MCCARTHY, DIRECTOR OF ELECTRONICS RECYCLING, WASTE MANAGEMENT: The products themselves, especially televisions, don’t have enough inherent value. The, the components that make up a television, they’re not valuable enough for recyclers to live off just the value of removing those parts.

HARRIS: Computers have always become quickly obsolete. People usually kept TVs longer, but now there are flat screens and high definition TV. Waste handlers are expecting to be hit with a bulge of older electronics.

VICTOR MOORE, SUNSET SCAVENGER: We pick up yesterday — or a couple of days ago, we picked up about eight TVs at one house. They were smaller TVs but people — the gentleman said he had them for 20 years just there.

HARRIS: Recycling old computers can mean a lot of different things. Some organizations refurbish donated computers. This company profits on the edges of American excess. HMR makes money by buying stacks of old computers, cheap, from companies that are upgrading. They’re checked out to see what still works and sold wherever they can go.

CHRIS JANKOS, US DIVISION MANAGER, HMR: We can still sell quite a few monitors here. Usually of the vintage 98, 99 and newer, but anything older than that, if it’s working, it’ll go to our Philippines branches for resale. If it’s not, then it’ll go to Sacramento for disassembly, demanufacture.

HARRIS: At HMR’s new Sacramento demanufacturing facility, workers take apart hundreds of televisions and monitors a day – all by hand. They pull out components that can make HMR some money as commodities.

This is round one in computer recycling. Now we have plastics, cables and wires, and circuit boards. Many of these contain valuable materials, and toxics. The question is — where do these go from here?

SUPER: COURTESY BASEL ACTION NETWORK AND SILICON VALLEY TOXIC COALITION: For years, computer parts have gone from “recyclers” in the United States to Asia — where valuable metals are stripped with no regard for health or the environment. Leftovers choke waterways – or go up in smoke.

CHRIS JANKOS, US DIVISION MANAGER, HMR: Stuff ends up overseas because typically you’re going to get a better price for it overseas. The commodities market here in the US is not very high. Most overseas, or developing countries overseas, they need this product, they need the raw materials basically. And it’s very expensive to buy raw materials, raw copper and aluminum and so forth. And the labor is cheaper there. So they’re used to buying it and recovering all those metals.

HARRIS: HMR and other US companies say they make sure any computer parts that leave their hands for Asia or anywhere are properly disposed of. They get documentation and visit factories. But at the non-profit Alameda County Computer Resource Center, the founder laughs. He says it’s impossible to verify where shipping pallets of computers go.

JAMES BURGETT, FOUNDER, ALAMEDA COUNTY COMPUTER RESOURCE CENTER: I sell a pallet of computers to Joe. Joe sells a pallet of computer to Fred. Fred pulls the hard drives out, sells the hard drive to Bill, sells the rest to Tom. Tom then turns around and says, oh, well, I’m a circuit board guy. He pulls out all the circuit boards out and sells the cases off to Bill. Okay, Bill goes, well, I’m a plastic guy, I pull the plastic off the front and send the steel off to Frank. Now, after about the first two tiers, I have no way of telling where that stuff went.

HARRIS: The long run solution, environmentalists say, is to push manufacturers to make electronics with fewer hazardous materials. Some say a recycling fee paid when you buy a computer would create an incentive to make clean computers — if that fee depended on how many toxics were inside.

MARK MURRAY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CALIFORNIANS AGAINST WASTE: The more hazardous material in the device, the more you’re gonna pay. We need to get manufacturers to reduce the amount of lead, reduce the other toxics that are in the devices. And that’s gonna ultimately reduce the cost of managing this waste.

RENEE ST. DENIS, BUSINESS MANAGER, PRODUCT RECYCLING UNIT, HEWLETT PACKARD:We make products that consumers want. So, we don’t put toxics in there just for fun. If there’s a toxic material in a product, like the glass in the CRT that has lead in it, it’s there for a good reason. A good technical reason. For example, to shield the user from the x-rays. We know that there’s lead in circuit boards. But that tin solder that has the lead in it, is the best technology for those kind of products. So, we do that in order to meet the needs of the customer in terms of the technology they want, at the price point they want. We don’t just do it capriciously.

HARRIS: At Hewlett Packard’s recycling center, a machine swallows whole computers. It chews them up and spits them out into separated streams of metals and plastics, ready for reuse. The company opened this center six years ago, after a report on the problems old computers cause in Asia. Nonetheless, a recent expose by environmental groups found HP products there again.

ST. DENIS: I was a little disappointed. Because I wish more people knew about the service we offer, so that HP products didn’t have to contribute to that issue over in Asia. But I understand the realities, that not everyone is going to know about this program at once.

HARRIS: In fact, ninety five percent of what is processed here comes from Hewlett Packard’s own discards. So far, only five percent is sent in by corporations and consumers. And that’s just a tiny fraction of what HP makes new to sell every year.

The mountains of electronic garbage are rising all the time. Computers aren’t the only problem.

MARK MURRAY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CALIFORNIANS AGAINST WASTE: Computer monitors right now, and TVs are the tip of the waste-berg. But there’s lots of other electronic waste out there that potentially causes a problem. The mercury in fluorescent lamps, the mercury in flat screen TVs and in computer monitor screens. There’s cadmium in the batteries in most personal electronic devices and cell phones. We know we’re going to have to deal with them both as solid waste and hazard waste in the future.

HARRIS: And why?

ST. DENIS: They make my life better. They make my life more fun. We have a video game. So it’s something fun to do in the evening. There are TVs in every room because I want to have the TV on when I’m doing other things. There’s a computer because it’s my main source of information in my day to day life. I have a handheld version of that so I can take a lot of personal information with me on the road. I have a cell phone to stay in contact with people. And I have various output devices so I can make hard copies, photos, and all the fun stuff I can make with my computer.

I think it is human nature. We always want the newest. We want the best. We want the latest.

JAMES BURGETT, ALAMEDA COUNTY COMPUTER RESOURCE CENTER: IBM, HP, Compaq, these machines are built to be thrown away. At the very best, they’re meant to be thrown in one machine, render for parts, and maybe remanufacture out of parts.

Build a machine that somebody can use for ten years. Cuz if you get us a machine that’s reliable for ten years, I’m going to come back and get another machine. Ten years from now you’ve got my market. You sell me a machine that’s good for 18 months, 18 months from now I’m going to be looking for a better machine. And quite frankly I’m going to be looking for another brand name.

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