So much for clean industry. The dross of the computer age turns out to be every bit as toxic as that of the machine age. The junking of obsolete computers in the United States alone is posing the problem of how to dispose of untold tons of lead, which can damage the nervous system, the blood and kidneys. If those computers are dumped in landfills, their tons of cadmium (if not kept from leaching into the soil or water) threaten to cause cancer and harm kidneys. Their mercury would pose a risk of serious neurological damage in children.
Computer industry optimists believe most of the obsolete machines remain stored away in private homes because owners don't know what else to do with them. Pessimists believe people will tire of them soon, and realists know that we must find a safe alternative to burying them in the ground.
Computer manufacturers are best positioned to collect old machines, recycle the usable components and safely dispose of the rest. The European Union has offered a common sense proposal to require manufacturers to take on this task as a cost of doing business in 15 countries. Instead of fighting the Europeans, the U.S. government ought to part company with the electronics industry and develop regulations that track what's being done on the Continent.
If passed by the European Parliament, the directive also would require 70 percent of machine weight to be recycled, not burned, and would phase out the use of cadmium, mercury and other hazardous components.
The Triangle has a dog in this fight; almost half a million computers were in homes here at last count in 1998 and obsolescence looms. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prohibits only corporations from dumping their old computers, and that leaves PC owners and small businesses to dump away.
To be profitable, computer recyclers need a steady stream of materials and customers, both of which manufacturers are equipped to deliver. IBM and Hewlett-Packard are reportedly tooling up to recover their products when they become outmoded, and their foresight would be rewarded by the European Union rules. Recapturing European market share would be a strong incentive for other computer makers to fall in line. The same approaches could be used to safeguard the health of Americans.
Yet the U.S. trade representative and the electronics industry as a whole have been holding up the European directive for more than a year, claiming it is an illegal restraint of trade. The federal government would serve all the people's interests better by helping to eliminate the threat posed by the new century's noxious waste.
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