Down the Tubes
Moore's Law says the cost of computer power falls by half every 18 months. The Trashcan Double-Time Corollary says it takes twice that long for a new personal computer to become obsolete junk -- for now, anyway. According to a recent report by the National Safety Council, computers sold today will have a useful life of about three years; those in 2005 will last two years. Any pre-486 model already has a negative net value, and a 486 is marginal.At these rates, more than 31 million personal computers will become clutter next year in the United States alone. Sixty-one million will get dumped or packed off to attics in 2007. By then, if they're not otherwise disposed of, a half-billion cashiered PCs will have piled up -- not counting any holdovers made before 1992. This presents not only an intriguing spectacle -- imagine what mega-art Christo might make from all those beige boxes and cathode-ray pedestals -- but a toxic headache, a huge recycling challenge, and a looming trade dispute.Electronic trash may have Europe and the United States duking it out once again in front of the World Trade Organization -- and guess which one will be taking industry's side. High tech generally basks in a clean, green image: No big smokestacks or slag heaps here, thank you. But the computer and, especially, the monitor on your desk -- not to mention your TV, cordless phone, and other electronic conveniences -- are little bundles of poison. Leaded glass contains the radiation in cathode-ray tubes (CRTs); a typical monitor may have two and a half pounds of lead, and a television even more. A lead frit seals the two pieces of a cathode tube. Lead solder holds printed circuits. PVC plastic sheaths wires, and other heavy metals and toxic synthetics appear here and there.Some of these materials can be recycled, as can the gold used in some circuits. And some computer makers have finally begun labeling the plastic types they use so these can be sorted and recycled. But computer recycling everywhere is available almost exclusively to business users (who pay for it to avoid toxic waste liabilities) rather than individuals. And so last year, just 2.3 million desktop PCs were recycled (down from 2.4 million the year before), along with 1.5 million monitors.For televisions, the waste stream's even more clogged: Last year only 19,000 were properly decommissioned, according to the National Safety Council, while 24 million were sold. More undoubtedly went to landfills or incinerators. And the rate of waste is about to increase dramatically: Analog sets are expected to flood the waste stream like old 8-tracks in the next decade, when the industry switches to high-definition digital broadcast.States have begun moving, some earnestly and some fitfully, to address this gathering flood of electronic waste. Massachusetts bans CRTs from landfills. Minneapolis tried curbside collection of electronic junk, but reportedly found it costly and inefficient; Minnesota environmental officials are now evaluating extensive trials, conducted this fall, of various means of collecting old computers, including take-backs at retail outlets.It's relatively easy getting businesses to recycle their electronic waste, says the project's manager, Tony Hainault: "We tell them they should assume it's hazardous [under EPA rules]." The trick is getting to the half of the rubbish-to-be squirreled away in homes. "We're looking at different strategies," adds Hainault, "because we don't think any one way will work." Cooperation with industry is a big part of Minnesota's approach; Sony and Panasonic, two of the more recycle-friendly electronic manufacturers, are partners in its trials, along with the refuse giant Waste Management and the American Plastics Council.Meanwhile, semi-united Europe is seeking a sweeping solution to its electronic junk crisis, which may be even more severe than this country's. And it would come down hard on those who make and market that junk-to-be. The environmental directorate of the European Commission has proposed a "Directive on Waste from Electric and Electronic Equipment," known by the priceless acronym WEEE. It vigorously embodies the principle of "extended producer responsibility" that has become a rallying cry for fair trade and environmental activists in this country as well.The WEEE would put the burden of cleaning up the electronic waste stream and cleaning up electronic products themselves squarely on manufacturers. They would be obliged to take back all their electronic and electric products (from mainframes and notepads to toasters, toys, and stoves) when those products are kaput, and to provide and pay for collection. Distributors would have to offer to take back, free of charge, a worn-out item similar to each item they sell. The leading high-tech toxic actors -- lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavelent chromium, and halogenated flame retardants -- would be phased out by 2004, with exceptions: Mercury would still be allowed in fluorescent lights and thermometers, and lead in cathode tubes. By 2004, European Community members would have to recycle 70 to 90 percent of various categories of electric trash. (TVs, monitors, and large appliances would fall in the 90-percent class). Manufacturers would bear all the costs of collecting and recycling from private households.The predictable battle lines have been drawn: Manufacturers are up in arms against the WEEE; activists defend it loudly and promote it as a model for this country. The American Electronics Association has fired off a vehement critique charging that the WEEE would violate the worldwide General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the treaty that created the WTO. In particular, the Electronics Association contends, the ban on lead and other toxics is not scientifically justified or necessary, since "other less trade-restrictive alternatives [such as] selective landfill bans [and] eco-taxes" would achieve the same ends. And it calls a requirement that at least 5 percent of the plastic in all imported electronic goods be recycled an illegal restriction on trade, since this would favor manufacturers in countries that recycle and would "protect life and health" there rather than in importing countries -- an improper "extraterritorial effect." (National sovereignty still counts for something: Countries are prohibited from wreaking environmental benefits in other countries.)Environmental activists find a target-rich environment in this unholy confluence of high tech, toxic waste, and the WTO; it's a sign of the industrial cycle that the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which formed 14 years ago to combat pollution from chip manufacture, is now focusing on pollution from computer discards. They've even sought a meeting with Bill Gates, a co-chair of the group hosting this month's WTO Ministerial Round in Seattle, and suggested that as a powerful member of the Electronics Association, Microsoft is complicit in its attack on the WEEE. (Microsoft's response: That's a hardware problem; we only make the software.) And they claim the US Trade Representative and the US mission in Brussels (where the European Commission is based) have "lobbied heavily" against the proposed European rules.Not exactly, says a US trade official speaking under diplomatic anonymity: "It isn't true we oppose or have lobbied against the rules. We don't oppose the intention of WEEE. We do have concerns about the way they're developing the proposal. The draft they've circulated has some key measures that could significantly affect trade. This is an appropriate time for a country's trading partners to raise concerns. This is not an attack or a challenge before the WTO."Not yet, anyway.