Electronic waste is growing

keyboardsSan Antonio Express-News
L.A. Lorek

Getting rid of obsolete electronics will cost San Antonio taxpayers $56 million by 2015, according to a report released Monday by the Texas Campaign for the Environment. Junk TVs, PCs, cellular phones, and CD and DVD players will cost taxpayers statewide $606 million if actions aren’t taken to prevent more than 2 million tons of toxins from ending up in Texas landfills and incinerators, said Robin Schneider, executive director for the Austin-based environmental group.

“There are so many toxins inside computers,” Schneider said. “These toxins migrate from landfills and incinerators into our air, land and water.”

Government and industry leaders will meet in Austin today for a seminar on what to do about all this electronic waste. Getting rid of old PCs and electronics will cost about $80 per household, but those costs should not be paid by taxpayers, Schneider said. The environmental group wants state legislation to make PC and electronics makers take back products for proper disposal.

Two months ago, Maine became the first state to require producers of monitors, laptops and TVs to take back their obsolete products. California has proposed similar legislation.

Currently, Texas law does not prevent consumers from sending PC waste into landfills — and that’s dangerous to the environment, Schneider said. Each computer or TV display contains an average of 4 to 8 pounds of lead. Computers also contain mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals that pose significant health hazards if they contaminate groundwater or get released into the air.

And the problem of mounting computer and electronic waste threatens to get worse as more computers, TVs and other electronics get replaced with faster, cheaper and better models.

“Consumers have, on average, two to three obsolete computers in their garages, closets or storage spaces,” according to the Texas Campaign for the Environment report. “U.S. government researchers estimate that three-quarters of all computers ever sold in the United States remain stockpiled, awaiting disposal.”

Some manufacturers, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, have publicly announced support for policies requiring manufacturers to take back their products.

PC maker Dell, based in Round Rock, has increased its recycling efforts in response to consumer demand, spokesman Bryant Hilton said. In March 2003, Dell launched a recycling program providing home pickup of old computers, no matter what the make or model, for $7.50. For more information, visit Dell.com/recycling.

“We certainly do understand that producers play a role in recycling,” Hilton said. “We don’t have a problem with taking back our product.”

In San Antonio, Discount Computer and Networking at 5500 Brewster recycles computers that consumers drop off or that it collects through computer drives around the city. In Austin, Image Microsystems handles recycling for Dell’s old computers.

Hewlett-Packard also runs a recycling program nationwide that will pick up any brand of PC from consumers’ doorsteps for a fee. For more information, visit its Web site at www.hp.com/recycle.

Study finds suspect chemicals in computer dust

Austin American-Statesman
Kevin Carmody

Dust on computers in government and university offices throughout the country, including one tested at the University of Texas, contained measurable levels of several fire retardant chemicals that are under mounting scrutiny as human health risks, according to a report to be released today in Austin.

PBDEsThe report shows that dust samples swiped from all 16 computers tested at the public offices contained widely varying levels of several brominated fire retardant chemicals used in making computers.The highest levels found were of one chemical — deca-BDE — which an industry trade group contends does not easily seep from computers and enter the environment or people’s bodies, according to the report by a national coalition of environmental advocacy groups including the Austin-based Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The report comes just days before scientists are to gather at the University of Toronto for a third international conference examining the newest research into possible environmental and human health risks posed by those chemicals, which are similar to the now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and are suspected of causing neurological and reproductive harm.

Several European countries have banned use of the chemicals based on health concerns, and the European Union is requiring a phase-out of most brominated fire retardants by 2006. In the United States, although manufacturers have agreed to phase out two of the chemicals by 2006 — octa-BDE and penta-BDE — deca-BDE can still be used.

The results of the dust tests do not prove that people are ingesting significant amounts of the chemicals through exposure to dust on computers, as opposed to other routes such as eating contaminated fish or livestock, the report’s authors concede.

However, because deca-BDE is used primarily in electronics, rather than in furniture and other products, the results suggest computer dust might be a significant source, said Robin Schneider, who heads the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The highest levels of deca-BDE were found on dust on a Compaq computer at a university office in New York State, while the second highest levels came from a 2002 model Dell computer in the Maine state Capitol, the report states.

The University of Texas computer, at the Jester Center, had levels of deca-BDE five times lower than the New York campus computer.

Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton said the company has barred the use of brominated fire retardants, including deca-BDE, in the plastic components of its computers since 2002. Not all of its competitors have done so or even report what flame retardants they use, according to the coalition’s report.

Dell is researching ways to replace a related chemical fire retardant, TBBPA, which is still used in the manufacture of its printed circuit boards, Hilton said.

What are brominated flame retardants?

A family of chemicals, similar to now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, that have widely used as fire retardants in consumer products. The principal types of brominated fire retardants, and their primary uses, are:

Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA): Epoxy resins (printed circuit boards and printed wire boards of computers and other electronic products), and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (housings of computers, PC monitors, televisions and other electronic products).

Decabromodiphenyl Oxide (Deca-BDE): High impact polystyrene (electronic equipment), polyethylenes (wire and cables of electronic equipment), upholstery textiles, building and construction applications.

Octabromodiphenyl Oxide (Octa-BDE): ABS plastics (PC monitors, housings for televisions, mobile phones and copy machine parts).

Pentabromodiphenyl Oxide (Penta-BDE): Polyurethane foam, mattresses, seat cushions, upholstered furniture, carpet underlay and bedding.

Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD): Polystyrene foam (building materials, i.e. insulation) and textiles (upholstered textiles).

— Source: Bromine Science and Environmental Forum Web site: www.bsef.com