Poison PCs and Toxic TVs: The Greatest Threat to the Environment You've Never Heard Of

Following is a report on e-waste prepared by Californians Against Waste (CAW), the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) and Green Capitol.

Over the last two decades, a technological revolution has taken place in California and around the planet. Driven primarily by faster, smaller and cheaper microchip technology, society is experiencing an exponential evolution in the capability of electronic appliances and the growing genre of personal electronics. And while the media has provided extensive coverage of this wave of technological innovation, scant attention is being paid to what is left in its wake.

Electronic waste (E-waste) encompasses a broad and growing range of electronic devices, ranging from large household appliances such as refrigerators, washers and dryers, and air conditioners, to hand-held cellular phones, fluorescent lamp bulbs (tubes), and personal stereos. Once built to be repairable, consumer electronics are now Designed to be replaced on a routine basis - and then discarded.

E-waste - and in particular the cathode ray tubes (CRTs) contained in computer monitors and television sets - represents an enormous and growing solid and hazardous waste problem for California and for the planet. With the recent Designation of CRTs as hazardous waste, the cost to taxpayers and local governments for their collection, processing and clean up, could easily exceed $1 billion over the next five years. And, the E-waste problem will continue to grow at an accelerated rate. Californians are expected to buy more than 2.2 million new computer systems every year, rendering their older systems 'obsolete.'

The purpose of this report is to raise awareness of the large and growing scope of the E-waste problem in California. Specifically, this report attempts to educate the public and policy makers regarding the volume and hazards posed by E-waste, the growing financial impact on local governments and taxpayers for its cleanup, and the consequences of continued inaction. Finally, the report offers a blueprint for action: A market-based policy approach that encourages waste reduction and minimizes taxpayer responsibility while increasing producer responsibility.

Executive Summary 
Electronic waste (E-waste) encompasses a broad and growing range of electronic devices ranging from large household appliances such as refrigerators, washers and dryers, and air conditioners, to hand-held cellular phones, fluorescent lamp bulbs (tubes), and personal stereos. Where once consumers purchased a stereo console or television set with the expectation that it would last for a decade or more, the increasingly rapid evolution of technology has effectively rendered everything disposable. Consumers no longer take a malfunctioning toaster, VCR or telephone to a repair shop. Replacement is often easier and cheaper than repair. And while these ever improving gadgets - faster, smaller, cheaper - provide many benefits, they also carry a legacy of waste.

Electronic waste already constitutes from 2% to 5% of the US municipal solid waste stream and is growing rapidly. European studies estimate that the volume of electronic waste is rising by 3% to 5% per year - almost three times faster than the municipal waste stream.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 1997 more than 3.2 million tons of E-waste ended up in US landfills. In a new report for the EPA, analysts estimate that the amount of E-waste in US landfills will grow fourfold in the next few years.

Over the last several years, no product so epitomizes the problems posed by obsolete electronics as the personal computer. Due to their growing waste volume, toxicity and management cost, they are the focus of this report. How California chooses to address the problems posed by obsolete computers is likely to set the tone for the broader spectrum of E-waste.

The volume of obsolete computers thrown out or temporarily stored for later disposal is already a serious problem that is escalating at a rapid rate.

Today's computer industry innovates very rapidly, bringing new technologies and 'upgrades' to market on the average of every 18 months. The average life span of a personal computer has shrunk to two years. Californians buy more than 2.2 million new computer systems each year. Currently, about 50% of US households own a computer.

Analysts estimate that more than 6,000 computers become obsolete in California every day. They are either tossed out with the trash and subsequently landfilled by trash collectors - often illegally - or stored in attics and garages for a later day when they will be dumped.

Consumers have, on average, 2 to 3 obsolete computers in their garages, closets or storage spaces. US government researchers estimate that three-quarters of all computers ever sold in the United States remain stockpiled, awaiting disposal. Should every consumer attempt to throw out their obsolete computer at once, California and the nation would face a major budgetary and environmental crisis.

The crisis continues to grow. Studies estimate that the number of obsolete computers in the United States will soon be as high as 315 to 680 million units. By the year 2005, one computer will become obsolete for every new computer put on the market.

Recycling rates for computers are low - and opportunities are virtually nonexistent for most California consumers.

The National Safety Council reported in 1999 that only 11% of discarded computers were recycled, compared with 28% of overall municipal solid waste. In California, estimates of computer recycling range from 5% to 15%, compared to a 42% rate for overall solid waste and a 70% rate for major appliances like refrigerators, washing machines, and dryers.

For large commercial customers, computer system distributors may negotiate for the collection and management of obsolete computer systems. However, there remains very little information on where and if these computers are recycled.

For the individual consumer looking to properly manage an obsolete home or office computer, options for recycling are virtually nonexistent. Recycling options that do exist typically come with a price tag of $10 to $30 per unit.

Discarded computers are hazardous wastes - and when dumped into landfills or improperly recycled, pose a hazard to the environment and human health.

The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in computer monitors, television sets, and other video display devices contain significant concentrations of lead and other heavy metals. The State of California recently affirmed that:

"...when discarded, CRTs are identified as hazardous waste under both federal and State law and are required to be managed in accordance with all applicable requirements, including generator, transporter and facility requirements."
Source: California Department of Toxic Substances Control, March 21, 2001, Letter to Materials for the Future Foundation


As a hazardous waste, the disposal of CRTs in municipal solid waste landfills is prohibited. Additionally, collection, whether for recycling or disposal, must be regulated and permitted as a hazardous waste activity.

Computer or television displays (CRTs) contain an average of 4 to 8 pounds of lead each. The 315 million computers that will become obsolete between 1997 and 2004 contain a total of more than 1.2 billion pounds of lead. Monitor glass contains about 20% lead by weight. When these components are illegally disposed and crushed in landfills, the lead is released into the environment, posing a hazardous legacy for current and future generations. Consumer electronics already constitute 40% of lead found in landfills. About 70% of the heavy metals (including mercury and cadmium) found in landfills comes from electronic equipment discards. These heavy metals and other hazardous substances found in electronics can contaminate groundwater and pose other environmental and public health risks.

Lead can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood system and kidneys in humans. Lead accumulates in the environment, and has highly acute and chronic toxic effects on plants, animals and microorganisms. Children suffer developmental effects and loss of mental ability, even at low levels of exposure.

Other hazardous materials used in computers and other electronic devices include cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, PVC plastic and brominated flame retardant. Mercury, for example, leaches when certain electronic devices such as circuit breakers are destroyed. The presence of halogenated hydrocarbons in computer plastics may result in the formation of dioxin if the plastic is burned. The presence of these chemicals also makes computer recycling particularly hazardous to workers and the environment.

What should we do with obsolete computers?
Recycling of computer materials and components - when properly implemented - represents the safest and most cost-effective strategy for addressing the problems posed by inoperative or outdated computers. Recycling computer materials and components and removing and/or reducing and treating the hazardous components conserves resources, reduces environmental and public health threats, and protects worker safety, while substantially reducing the high cost of permanently storing and disposing of hazardous wastes in permitted hazardous waste facilities.

Computers, televisions and other E-scrap contain valuable materials and components that are technically recyclable. The problem is the lack of collection incentives and recycling infrastructure, as well as the high cost of material collection, handling and processing.

Estimates for the cost of recycling computers range from $10 to $30 per unit. While this is less expensive than the estimated $25 to $50 per unit cost for disposal, someone must still pay these costs.

Even if recycling levels were to double, the total cost of managing California's current output of obsolete computer scrap will range from $25 million to $42 million annually. Add to that the cost of cleaning up the last two decades' legacy of stockpiled obsolete computers, and the total cost over the next 5 years could easily range from $500 million to over $1 billion.

If the task is left to local governments, the management of obsolete computer monitors alone is likely to double both the volume and cost of already overburdened and under-funded household hazardous waste (HHW) programs.

Consumers and local governments have neither the technical ability nor financial resources to address this problem on their own.

Recently, some local governments and at least two computer manufacturers have established "pay-as-you-go" collection programs that require consumers and small businesses to pay a fee in order to drop off or ship their obsolete computers for recycling. Costs for these programs range from $7 to $30 or more per unit. These programs are doomed to failure.

It is appropriate to internalize the cost of proper waste management into the price of electronic devices at the time of purchase. However, requiring consumers and small business generators to pay the cost of recycling and/or disposal on the back end has proven to be a shortsighted and ultimately ineffective approach. As we have seen firsthand in California, reliance on back end disposal fees - such as those currently in place for used tires - reduces incentives for proper recycling, encourages 'sham' recycling, and results in improper and often illegal disposal which ultimately requires cleanup at a substantial cost to taxpayers.

IBM sold more than 3 million computers in the United States last year, and was the first manufacturer to establish a pay-as-you-go system for recycling obsolete computers. So far, results are disappointing to say the least. According to the company, less than 1,000 computers (0.03% of annual sales) have been recycled under this system.

The State of California has taken an important first step, by recognizing that electronics scrap and junk computers are hazardous wastes that must be kept out of landfills. But there's much more that must be done.

Europe has taken the lead in addressing the E-waste problem by proposing an ambitious system of "Extended Producer Responsibility" (EPR). In May of 2001, the European Union (EU) Parliament adopted a directive that requires producers of electronics to take responsibility - financial and otherwise - for the recovery and recycling of E-waste. A second directive requires manufacturers to phase out the use of hazardous materials. California should follow the EU's lead.

What we are proposing
Manufacturers of electronic devices should be required to phase down - and where feasible, phase out - the use of hazardous materials in their products. 
Manufacturers should be responsible for meeting specified recovery and recycling goals for electronic devices, providing manufacturers with an incentive to help finance the development of a convenient and effective collection infrastructure.

  1. Manufacturers should be required to pay the net cost of recycling electronic devices (or the cost of proper disposal for devices that are not recyclable). This proven approach will provide manufacturers with an incentive to Design products for recyclability, as well as to develop markets for recycling.
  2. Taxpayer funded local Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) programs are already overburdened and under funded and should not be financially responsible for the new task of electronic waste management. In the short-term - in areas where no other collection opportunity exists - HHW programs should be authorized to charge-back manufacturers for the costs of managing their electronic devices.
  3. California must establish a workable regulatory framework for the management of electronics waste that encourages recycling while protecting public health, worker safety and the environment.
  4. Manufacturers of computer monitors, television sets and other electronic devices containing hazardous materials must be responsible for educating consumers and the general public regarding the potential threat to public health and the environment posed by their products, and for raising awareness of the proper waste management protocol. At minimum, all computer monitors, television sets and other electronic devices containing hazardous materials must be clearly labeled to identify environmental hazards and proper materials management.

Participating Organizations
Established in 1977, Californians Against Waste (CAW) is a nonprofit grassroots organization that has grown to represent the interests of more than 24,000 Californians. CAW is the only environmental group in California with full-time staff lobbying exclusively in support of recycling economy. CAW advocates policy initiatives at the local, state, and federal levels.

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) envisions a sustainable world where a healthy environment is a right, rather than a privilege. To bring about this vision, SVTC works for the empowerment of people locally, nationally and globally. SVTC is a diverse, grassroots organization committed to the practice of social justice and multiracial democracy.

The fiscal watchdog for California's environmental movement, Green Capitol fights to expose irresponsible government taxing and spending practices that destroy California's unique environmental assets.