2002 Denver Annual Meeting (October 27-30, 2002)

Paper No. 23
Presentation Time: 8:00 AM-12:00 PM


HASAN, Syed E., Department of Geosciences, Univ Missouri - Kansas City, 5100 Rockhill Rd, Kansas City, MO 64110-2499, hasans@umkc.edu

Personal computers (PCs), cell phones, fax machines and related electronic equipment, have become a part of modern life in developed and many developing countries. While these devices have improved our productivity, they also have created a unique problem of disposal of the discarded electronic- or e-waste.

In the United States, PCs become outdated within an average period of 3-4 years. Continued technological innovations, aided by lower price of the new models, further reduce the useful life of PCs to an even shorter period. It is estimated that in the U.S. alone, during the 10-year period, 1997-2007, an estimated 500 million PCs will become obsolete, awaiting disposal.

Owing to the toxic nature of many heavy metals, organic, and inorganic compounds that go into manufacturing the computer and the monitor, their disposal in a landfill or by incineration is not a preferred option. Recyclers attempt to salvage as many of the re-usable materials as possible. However, the labor-intensive process makes computer recycling cost-prohibitive in the United States. This has resulted in shipping the obsolete PCs to countries like Bangladesh, China and India. While this practice enables the domestic recycling companies to reduce the cost, it creates serious health and environmental problems for the workers in developing countries. Generally, environmental and labor laws in such countries are not very specific and even where they are, their enforcement is very lax. Such situations lead to recycling crews working in makeshift factories with hardly any provisions to protect them from exposure to hazardous substances-primarily through inhalation of the toxic fumes-causing cancer and other serious health problems.

The presentation discusses the nature of toxic substances found in the computer and the monitor and their potential health effects. The status of e-waste in the U.S.A. and current recycling practice are reviewed. Possible ways to reduce the volume of discarded PCs are suggested.