In a very large bowl, mash up what is probably the largest single source of chlorofluorocarbons; throw in reams and reams of wasted paper; chop up a bunch of quickly obsolescent machines for added crunch; add the fastest-growing source of electrical energy consumption; spice with a few zillion batteries full of lead, cadmium, and mercury. Oh yeah, be careful when stirring your stew, because the production of high-technology components makes useof toxic gases, solvents, heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds that can harm workers, communities, and the environment.
How to Make Compu-Stew
Stratospheric ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used as a solvent to wash residue from printed circuit boards, are being rapidly phased out (better late than never). Apple, Compaq, DEC, Fujitsu, IBM, and Intel all are eliminating CFCs -- and in the process saving millions because they are avoiding the costly purchase and disposal costs of chemicals.
While the reduction, reuse and recycling of paper is perhaps the easiest environmental problem to address, the quantity of paper use in the United States has doubled since 1976, the year the Apple II was introduced. In 1994 we still are recycling only about 15-20% of office paper waste, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors' National Office Paper Recycling Project. One disincentive to paper recycling is the fact that paper run through a laser printer is worth 10-25% of plain paper that has been through an impact printer because the laser toner is so difficult to remove. Rumor has it that new processes to de-ink the 60% of office paper now laser printed are on the horizon.
Better progress has been made in recycling the components of obsolete machines. According to Ethan Seidman, a researcher for Garbage magazine, when a computer enters the waste processing stream, it is usually stripped of all salvageable or recycled parts so that "nothing is left when the crows are done picking." One exception is the picture tube in monitors which must be disposed of as an expensive hazardous waste. Printer cartridges now are recycled routinely.
While many arguments can be made about how computers save energy (fossil fuels used in transportation are saved by telecommuting, microprocessor energy management systems save heating and cooling energy in buildings, tiny computers save gasoline in new automobiles), the rapidly increasing number of computers and printers exerts a huge new demand on energy resources. Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory estimate power consumption from typical office computing to equal the demand of lighting, which historically has been the largest single consumer of electricity. Add to this the increased costs of cooling the building in which the computers are located.
Fortunately, new technologies can radically reduce the electrical demand associated with computing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Energy Star" program identifies desktop computers that incorporate a sleep-mode capacity which when compared to a typical computer lowers total power consumption by 70%! If you use a similarly equipped laptop computer with an active-matrix color screen, you've reduced your consumption by 93%! By the way, ink-jet printers, while slower than lasers, use 80% less standby energy and 97% less in printing energy than laser printers!
Finally, there are those lowly batteries. Most desktop personal computers use a battery to back up system memory, and nearly all battery-powered portables and notebooks use rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries for system power. They may not seem like much, but batteries alone constitute about 20% of the hazardous waste generated by U.S. house-holds and offices. Some computer vendors are now offering a battery recovery program for their portables and notebooks where they accept used batteries at their service providers and then pay the full cost of recycling or "proper" disposal. The long-term solution is to use newer battery types that don't contain cadmium.