Electronics' Final Cost
Debate Heats Up on Environmental Impact of Old PCs, TVs
Listen to Emily Harris's report for Morning Edition.
View a photo gallery about electronics recycling.
Watch an excerpt of the story produced by NOW's Rick Field, reported with Emily Harris, from NOW with Bill Moyers, airing Friday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. (Check local listings.)
July 19, 2002 -- As televisions, computers and monitors and cell phones become disposable commodities to be replaced by newer, better models every few years, the problem becomes what to do with the old ones. The equipment that ends up in landfills can pose environmental hazards if the lead and other toxic materials in them leach into the soil.
A 1999 study published by a University of Florida scientist showed that cathode ray tubes -- or picture tubes -- found in color
monitors and TVs leached, on average, more than four times the amount of lead the Environmental Protection Agency defines as hazardous.
As NPR's Emily Harris reports on Morning Edition, the findings of this fairly simple study turned out to play a key role in the fight to keep electronics out of landfills and intensified a controversy over who should pay to recycle them.
Marianne Horinko, the EPA's assistant administrator for solid waste, says the results of Associate Professor Tim Townsend's study were a useful guide to determine potential hazards.
"Having this data from the University of Florida study gives us the information we need to say that indeed, disposal of these end-of-life electronics may pose risks that we are very concerned about," Horinko says.
Previously companies determined whether their discarded computers should be handled as hazardous. Consumers didn't have to bother with any such regulations. But the study prompted some states to act. Massachusetts was the first to ban all CRTs from landfills, though saving space was more a concern than potential lead leaks. But a year later, California closed its landfills to all TVs and monitors, based on Townsend's study.
Since the landfill ban, CRT recycling has become a big business in California. At a Sacramento facility owned by Australia-based HMR, workers dismantle hundreds of computers and TVs a day. They separate out the circuit boards, the wires and the plastic to be sold as commodities.
CRTs are crushed by a special machine. The glass is reused for new picture tubes or sent to smelters that process lead. But people getting rid of old computers or TVs have to pay for this special handling. In California, it can cost between $20 and $65.
To pay for a recycling infrastructure, state lawmakers have proposed adding a special fee to the price of new computers. But computer makers say such fees would be too hard to collect from all computer sellers. Heather Bowman of the Electronics Industry Alliance also says it's not fair for people buying computers to pay to recycle old ones already stacking up. "We think that to be more fair, it's got to happen when you're ready to get rid of the product," she says.
A group of manufacturers, environmentalists and government officials are trying to create a national voluntary computer recycling program. The biggest obstacle is how to pay for such an infrastructure. Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., has just introduced a bill to put a maximum $10 fee on the purchase of monitors, CPUs, laptops and potentially other electronics. The EPA would use the money to give grants to organizations that refurbish or recycle old computers.
Pressure to do something safe with old computers grew with recent reports that many U.S. discards are taken apart in Asia with no precautions for health or the environment.
"No company wants to see its products being stripped of toxic metals by hand over an open fire, or on a mountain of junk where kids eat and play," Harris reports. Major manufacturers are offering take-back programs, often for a fee. Dell is contracting with U.S. prison labor to dismantle customer discards.
But at the same time as they find alternatives to landfills, manufacturers says they don't believe there's a threat of toxic leaks from trashed CRTs. They point to Clark Akatiff, long-time landfill supervisor in Palo Alto, Calif., who says landfills are a safe and efficient way to deal with the waste.
Akatiff says that even with tens of thousands of CRTs buried in his landfill, about 80 percent of the monitoring wells surrounding the facility show no evidence of lead. A few show trace amounts, he says, levels that have also been also been detected in other California landfills.
But Townsend, the Florida scientist, says the "sustainable" solutions -- making new computers out of a discarded ones -- are the answer to the problem.
On commission from two regional EPA offices, Townsend is now studying toxic leaching of other electronics. This summer, his graduate students are tossing keyboards and computer processing units into a big barrel of acid. Chopped up cell phones go get tumbled in smaller jars. This time they'll look for more residues than lead, including cadmium and bromide flame retardants, which accumulate in fat like PCBs, and for mercury, which is used in laptop screens.
Activists Push for Safer E-Recycling
Hear a March 11, 2002, Morning Edition report on environmental concerns regarding computer disposal.
Hear a Dec. 26, 2000, All Things Considered report on the growth of an industry based on recycling materials from discarded computers.
Hear a Jan. 11, 1999, Morning Edition report on a computer recycling center at Goodwill Industries.
Browse for other NPR stories about toxic waste.
Read the Florida study on lead leachability from CRTs in landfills.
Read the Palo Alto, Calif., landfill supervisor's critique of California's ban on CRTs in landfills.
Review computer industry initiatives for electronics recycling.
The Electronic Industries Alliance also has information on reuse and recycling programs.
Read a draft "pledge of true stewardship" for electronics recyclers to sign at the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Read EPA tips on electronics recycling and information on electronics product stewardship.
Read the EPA's proposal to change the regulations governing how television and computer monitor tubes are handled.
California and Massachusetts are the only states to completely ban CRTs from landfills. More than a dozen states have recently seen legislation on electronics recycling introduced. Learn more about state legislation.
Read a copy of a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., that would put a maximum $10 fee on the purchase of monitors, CPUs and potentially other electronics to help fund recycling efforts.
Learn about the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative.
Visit the Materials for the Future Foundation to learn about its support for community-based resource conservation initiatives.
Computer monitors and televisions are not the only electronic devices known to contain hazardous materials. Learn about recycling batteries from cell phones and other devices.
Read reports by non-profit group Inform Inc. analyzing industry efforts to recycle batteries and cell phones.
Read about Europe's recycling strategy, which requires direct involvement by manufacturers and sets specific recycling targets.
NOW with Bill Moyers offers a state-by-state "e-cycling" resource map, information on recycling old phones and batteries and environmental checklists.