Ethan Arpi

Can Those $100 Laptops Be Recycled?

ewaste?Closing the digital divide? has become a mantra echoed throughout the development community. And for good reason; the most innovative technologies like solar panels, cell phones, and computers have been utilized by the BOP to generate greater income and economic opportunity. But as governments, businesses, and non-profits continue to emphasize the importance of new technologies, they must not forget that these technologies, when discarded, produce some of the most insidious waste. Therefore, developing and implementing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with e-waste is just as important as ensuring that the most sophisticated technologies are readily available in the developing world. That’s the message of Elizabeth Grossman’s smart new book, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, which warns that there is a ?flip side to the digital revolution.? The negative effects of e-waste, she writes, “are now being felt by communities from the Arctic to Australia, with poorer countries and communities receiving a disproportionate share of the burden.” (For a review of the book, check out the Treehugger Blog, and for an interview with the author, check out WorldChanging.)

Here are a few unsettling facts about e-waste:?Each color computer monitor and television set averages between four and eight pounds of lead.

?Other computer equipment contains cadmium, barium, mercury and chromium.

?A computer’s plastic components contain brominated flame retardants that accumulate in human blood and fat tissue and can disrupt the body’s hormonal balance.

?”When burned, some of these plastics release dioxins and furans, persistent pollutants linked to a laundry list of health problems, including cancer.”

At least for the time being, e-waste in the United States has not been too much of a problem. That’s because somewhere between 50-80% of American computers and other electronic equipment is dumped in landfills in developing countries. In the Guangdong province of China, which is home to one of the world’s largest repositories of imported e-waste, toxins have already seeped into the water supply. According to one study, ’’Exporting Harm: The Techno-Trashing of Asia,’’ levels of toxic materials in the region’s rivers are 190 times the levels for drinking water recommended by the World Health Organization.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. Just last week Dell Computer announced that it was instituting a free recycling program for all Dell-branded products. (Previously Dell would only recycle computer parts free of charge if a consumer purchased another Dell product.) “We have a responsibility to our customers to recycle the products we make and sell,” said Michael Dell, the company chairman, suggesting that he no longer expects rural Chinese residents to shoulder his corporation’s externalized costs. Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition in Washington gushed following Dell’s announcement, telling the New York Times that, “Dell’s new program sets the bar high.”

And she is right. As the New York Times reports, Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer have ?less ambitious? recycling programs: ?Hewlett-Packard’s program accepts computers made by any manufacturer, but consumers must pay for shipping, about $35 for a complete computer system?Apple announced in April that it would offer free recycling of old computers to customers who buy new ones, but consumers not buying a replacement must pay a $30 shipping fee.?

Watch out Apple! With green catching on in a big way, the super trendy Cupertino Corporation might just have lost its edge to Dell.

But in the world of the BOP, the arms race between Dell and Apple is not as important as other developments in the field. Take the $100 laptop, for example. If Nicholas Negroponte’s bold venture ever reaches the market, making the PC ubiquitous around the developing world, his project may be responsible for generating unprecedented levels of e-waste. Let’s wish Negroponte luck and keep our fingers crossed that he has a recycling program to go along with those hand cranked computers.