Toxic technology

Computers pollute our groundwater

Computer monitors and TVs contain lead and other toxins.

Computer monitors and TVs contain lead and other toxins.

Illustration By Dack Thompson

The scorching August sun seemed to cook the pile of garbage, much of it recyclable. Bulldozers crushed and leveled the rubbish, the last anyone would ever see of the unwanted waste before its burial in the Western Regional Sanitary Landfill in Roseville.

Included in the pile, among plastic bags, fast-food containers, old clothing and cardboard cartons, sat an IBM computer monitor, waiting for demolition. It wasn’t supposed to be there.

“I don’t know how that would get in there,” Terry Bosik, the solid waste utility manager, would later say. “It’s not in my hands at that point.”

He said that an independent company, Western Placer Recovery, runs the landfill. The burden of sorting waste is in their hands. Regardless, he said, the computer monitor should have never come so far.

Considering the massive stream of waste that ends up in our landfills, it’s understandable how hazardous materials such as those found in computer monitors or televisions could slip through.

But that doesn’t make it right, or legal, or safe. Indeed, that monitor in Roseville stood as a testament to a widespread problem that could be contaminating our groundwater, and is only getting worse.

It’s called electronic waste, or e-waste, and it’s toxic. A wide array of electronic appliances such as computer monitors and television sets are filled with lead and other nasty compounds, constituting a major environmental and public health threat when they end up in landfills.

As the computer industry rapidly evolves, the life cycle of computers is inevitably shortened. One study by Carnegie Mellon University estimates that by 2005, for every computer put on the market, another will be thrown out. According to the National Safety Council, 16 million computers became obsolete just in 1998.

“The average lifespan of a computer has decreased from four or five years to under two years,” said Brian Dardzinski, environmental consultant for Corporate Network Resources in Sacramento.

Computer monitors and television sets are particularly dangerous because they contain cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which are “picture tubes” that turn an electronic signal into what appears on a screen. The problem is that CRTs contain lead. Most TVs and computer monitors contain about four to eight pounds of lead, as well as a poisonous concoction of mercury and cadmium.

When discarded and crushed in landfills, lead can potentially enter groundwater resources, where even a small amount can cause serious health problems. Lead is poisonous and is particularly harmful to brain development in children. It is also known to cause damage to the central nervous and circulatory systems of both adults and children.

“The health impacts associated with minimal exposure to lead are already widely known. The state Department of Health Services has set standards for primary drinking water at 15 parts per billion. That’s the equivalent of one drop of vermouth in a 20,000 gallon martini glass,” Dardzinski said.

Lead leaking into the groundwater is the primary concern associated with e-waste, considering the leaky state of California landfills. The state Auditor’s Office in December reported that landfill lining is insufficient, and that underground aquifers are in danger of contamination.

The report pronounced that California landfills have failed to comply with the Integrated Waste Management Act, and the “California Integrated Waste Management Board lacks appropriate authority to fully protect the environment and public safety.”

A 1995 study commissioned by the board found that between 72 percent and 86 percent of the 544 sites in California were found to be “leaking waste constituents outside the limits of the landfill.”

And as more monitors sneak their way into the landfills, that leakage raises concerns about whether lead is ending up in our water.

Renewed concern
A new report, “Poison PCs and Toxic TVs: The Biggest Environmental Crisis You Never Heard Of,” stated that in 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that more than 3.2 million tons of e-waste ended up in this country’s landfills. In 1999, The National Safety Council reported that only 11 percent of surplus computers were actually recycled.

The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) announced on March 22 that discarded CRTs are considered hazardous waste under state and federal law. Though the disposal of CRTs in municipal landfills has always been illegal in California, the laws were not always enforced. California lags behind other states—such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington—that already have programs to comprehensively address the issue of CRTs.

“The size of the problem is enormous,” Dardzinski said. “Over 1 billion pounds of lead will enter the waste stream nationally.”

The California Integrated Waste Management Board suggests that working (however antiquated) TVs, monitors and computers should be sold or donated. Those no longer functioning should be recycled by an organization equipped and certified to handle these materials.

“Recycling is not as expensive as handling this as a hazardous waste,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste (CAW).

Yet Murray said there are no comprehensive programs in Sacramento for dealing with this hazardous waste and that the only real option is for the consumer to take it back to the retailer or send them back to the manufacturer.

Doing the right thing
Solutions do exist, the only problem is getting computer owners to choose them, and right now, there is a disincentive to do so. People usually have to pay to have their monitors recycled.

Hewlett Packard and IBM have established programs that allow the consumer to send back their antiquated PC for recycling, but it costs between $25 and $35.

“There’s no free option in Sacramento as of now,” Murray said.

Cal-EPA spokesman Ron Baker said that Murray is “absolutely correct. But we are undertaking efforts to make sure they do not end up in municipal landfills.”

Until there is a good solution to the problem, Baker said, “[w]e are suggesting that people store them in their garage or the back of a closet.”

He recommended that consumers call their county to find out what the Household Hazardous Waste collection days are. Baker said that whether the monitors or television sets will be picked up depends on the county and it’s a “limited time basis.”

“It’s not like bottles, cans or newspaper,” Murray said. “This is a product that will cost 10 to 20 to 30 dollars to recycle. That’s the problem with this system. People are not enthusiastic about doing this.”

Baker has a different opinion: “I don’t see that as a lack of incentive. Most people who own computers want to dispose of them properly.”

Murray said when he consulted with IBM, out of the 2.5 million computers sold from November 2000 to June 2001, only 800 antiquated computers were returned for recycling.

He believes we need state legislation that says the manufacturers need to take responsibility, and the price of recycling should be built in and should not be on the backs of taxpayers.

“An integrated approach is required to help protect our water resources,” Dardzinski said. “Landfills, state agencies, as well as manufacturers, must be involved to keep lead out of landfills and produce electronics that are less hazardous and easier to recycle.”