Sending Our Cyber Waste Downstream

Last week, preparing for the arrival of grandchildren for Thanksgiving, I opened a rarely used closet. In it was a Jenga tower of old computers -- the oldest boxy clunkers on the bottom, unused scanners in the middle, bible-fat laptops high above, with keyboards and external drives chinked into the gaps. Wires and power cords entwined the forgotten tower, Kudzu vines in the cyber jungle.

I hadn't forgotten our old printers (which are obsolete before we pry them out of their spray foam boxes) because they're sitting in the garage on top of the woodpile, where a mouse of another sort now provides the input. They work, it's just that the new ones are faster and cheaper (even if the cartridges aren't) and a person can hardly afford not to buy one. But just try giving the old ones away.

Recently someone broke into our garage, apparently to steal a bike, but the cords hanging down from the printers got tangled in the spokes, and they gave up. Even with a bicycle thrown in, no one will take an old printer.

So when we learned of the Great eCycling Event at the Mall of America, we leapt into action. We disassembled the tower and loaded the components into the car.

When we got to the mall we saw rows of police cars with gumballs flashing and a computerized sign at the side of the road blinking the message, "E-Cycling event CLOSED." Yellow cones funneled traffic away from the drop site next to Ikea and toward the mall. Like corks caught in the current, we were swept into the swirl and soon found ourselves wandering inside the Forbidden City -- America's massive shrine to consumption. Funny, we came out here to get rid of stuff.

Later we learned that the Great eCycling Event closed early because of the mass of techno garbage dumped at the site. One million pounds was collected in one day, filling 50 semitrailer trucks.

Maybe it's just as well that we didn't add to the load. According to the Associated Press, an estimated 50 to 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the United States each year ends up being shipped to developing countries, where the poorest of the poor disassemble them with hammers and their bare hands, exposing themselves and the environment to a cocktail of toxic chemicals.

"It is being recycled, but it's being recycled in the most horrific way you can imagine," says Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based group looking in to the lo-tech reality of hi-tech recycling.

Turns out, when it comes to recycling electronics, all of our Green altruism is for naught. Very little is being done to regulate how our cyber waste is processed. Although some states have passed regulations and the EPA is working to develop a system to certify companies that recycle electronics responsibly, for now we're simply relying on the age-old system of dumping our waste on those who live farther down the economic stream.

Meanwhile, I've got a car full of toxic computers. Looks like a Thanksgiving project for the grandchildren. Instead of moving the woodpile, we'll reconstruct the Jenga tower in the garage, next to the printers. And later, over a humble old-fashioned turkey, we'll acknowledge the blessings that have caused this glut, and vow, like all addicts, to kick the habit.

Susan Lenfestey lives in Minneapolis and writes at the

(c) 2007 Star Tribune

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