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Where lame computers go to die. Answered

If you're like me you probably have an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude towards garbage. Usually, when I throw something out, I don't give too much thought to where it is going to end up. The problem with such an attitude is that the garbage ultimately has to go somewhere; it is unlikely that we are going to start blasting our trash into space any time soon. So, the question is, when we toss out really toxic things like old computers or televisions, where, in fact, are they ending up? The edge of town? The edge of the county? The next state over? West Africa? A small shanty in China?

National Geographic has an amazing article in their current issue about the fate of such e-waste.

"People have always been proficient at making trash. Future archaeologists will note that at the tail end of the 20th century, a new, noxious kind of clutter exploded across the landscape: the digital detritus that has come to be called e-waste."

Photograph by Peter Essick


Actually, this is where lame computers go:


Lame? yes i see a lot of towers but it looks like vista on the screen thats on.... Were do you get them all I Live in Saskatchewan and I cant get a hold of them that easy.

actually its XP, it looks like vista 'cause i used CharredPC's i'ble on how to make your XP look like Vista. as for how i get all the PCs... lets say that i have friends who know that i like computers :]

Yeah Me too I got those kinda friends but they cant call me a nerd because they go on msn more than I'm on my computer !

What I've never understood about Vista, is why would someone want to have two clocks on the screen at once?

I'd be happy to take all your old computers. Don't throw them away!

Everyone is arguing about the exact toxicity of the dump, can we not just agree there is more nastyness in a dump than in a field of flowers. I don't care who is right or wrong, whether solder contains lead or not, what matters is what are you gonna do about it?


10 years ago

" really toxic things like old computers or televisions,"

What makes you think that old computers and televisions are "really toxic" compared to other stuff typically found in dumps, landfills, and junkyards?

Ah. I see. They burn it; I can see how that turns things toxic. And presumably the people doing it find this better than the life they had before. Sad.

Sure, plastics don't decompose and certain synthetic materials are pretty bad, but electronics are full of heavy metals that get into the topsoil and water supply. Then you end up eating Sushi full of mercury.

Such is the perception. Buy the overall amount of lead in solder is quite low compared to assorted other waste, and the lead in monitors is part of the glass and thus not "very" leachable. I'm nott very confident that perception matches reality. Which electronic components do you think contain mercury? Even the NG article complained (quantitatively) more about organics (like you get from burning plastics over tires) than metals (though it contained the usual "electronics are full of heavy metals" generalization.)

It's not a question of individual compontents, it's a question of scale. On a whole, there is a lot of heavy metals just being dumped recklessly into the environment. There is not a convincing argument that you can make to prove that this is safe or even a reasonable practice.

Lead is found in:
(and countless other components - but I just listed the bread and butter of all circuits in everything electronic that you own)

Mercury is found in:
"Button” – batteries – includes small button or coin-sized batteries used in watches, thermometers, hearing aids, etc.
Fluorescent bulbs and tubes – includes "green tipped” tubes and compact fluorescent bulbs
Mercury switches
Older tilt switches
Certain crystals

NiCd batteries (cell phones, toys, laptops, etc.)

"Around 40 percent of the heavy metals (such as lead, mercury and cadmium) found in landfills come from electronic waste, according to the Computer Take Back Campaign. Only a small amount of leakage can be hazardous, it argues, pointing out that "just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 acres of a lake, making the fish unfit to eat"."

quote from:

And it's not just a question of fish being unsafe to eat. It's a question of heavy metal absorption by all plant and animal life. Most importantly, if the animals that we eat become full of heavy metals, we are especially in trouble. Animals cannot easily dispose of heavy metals from their bodies. Nor are heavy metals cooked off in food preparation. Us being animals ourselves, if we eat animals full of heavy metals, they will simply pass them on to us. Long-term heavy metal poisoning from our food is hard to diagnose, often overlooked and almost impossible to test for unles you are displaying acute symptoms. It's very difficult to determine heavy metal poisoning if heavy metals are building up in your body over time . Heavy metals, mercury in particular, builds up in your internal organs and is almost impossible to identify unless you either have sudden acute poisoning or have such a large amount in your body that trace amounts show up in your blood or urine.

Over the summer I started visual perception and nerve problems. The doctors suspected heavy metal poisoning and ran a battery of tests, but never came up with a conclusive answer. I slowly just got better over time, but if heavy metal poisoning was anything like what I had experienced this summer, I wouldn't recommend taking it lightly and living in denial about our exposure to it. Also, to imply that electronics are not one of the larger causes of heavy metal pollution is kind of lacking in reality and I venture to bet that you will be hard pressed to find convincing evidence to back this argument. Simply to state that other things are more toxic does not make e-waste any less toxic.

your sources are focused on the past (ie - the state of what was built in the past and exists in landfills already) and ignorant of the current (what built now and is now going into the landfills). the vast majority of raw electrical components (resistors, capacitors etc) now are free of lead and mercury, in large part because you can't any longer sell electronics in the EU which contains lead or mercury. pcb assembly (ie soldering) for US products is also moving rapidly to lead-free, although it is not as far along as the components. Most electronics made by multinationals that sell the product worldwide is now lead-free, because they want to sell it in EU. The longest holdouts will likely be products designed and sold only in developing country markets (china and india are a large enough market that there are many consumer electronics designed only to be sold in those places). likewise, mercury is phased out of everything you list quite some time ago, the major exception being fluorescent lights. likewise, NiCd batteries are nearly phased out also.

I can still buy tons of components with lead in them. Digikey would be more than happy to unload their old inventory to an American like me with no ROHS directive to answer to. Any which way, "phased out" in some sense is a euphemism for "thrown away" and I stand behind my assertions because the things filling the landfills are not the seventeenth-generation ipods but the broken boom box sitting in someone's garage since 1985 or the 486 laptop with a giant NiCd battery. Those things may have been phased out, but they all still exist somewhere in this world and I find it unlikely that even have of them are being recycled properly.

yes, all the phased-out stuff is in a landfill now or soon.

I dunno. It just seems that a couple grams per computer worth of lead in a landfill is a relatively minor issue compared to, say, adding an organic lead compound to gasoline to make car engines run better, and letting the (now lead-containing) exhaust from a hundred million cars spew out into your cities. (estimate: Seven Million Tons of TEL were burned.)

I thought that "leaded" gasolines" were no longer ?

Phased out in china in 2001, EU in 2000 (except for a small amount still sold in the UK), 1986 in the US. I dunno about the rest of the world. (Hmm. Phased out in "sub-saharan Africa in 2006", and there is [http://www.unep.org/pcfv/PDF/MapWorldLead-June06.pdf This map with status as of June, 2006.) But the fact that we're not still doing it isn't relevant to my argument.
ALL the lead randofo mentions in electronics components is solder, as far as I know. Leads of ICs, resistors, etc are solder-plated to resistor corrosion and make solder-based assembly easier. (or were. A lot of environment regulations seem to be slightly behind the curve: required consumer battery recycling started just after I started seeing "mercury free" in spec sheets, and of course we now have required e-waste disposal and the RoHS elimination of lead in most e-waste anyway. Sigh.) (and how many circuit boards with lead-based solder do you think it takes to equal one car battery or scuba weight?) (Huh. I wonder how the mass of lead from solder in a typical third world nation compares to the mass of lead in bullets strewn randomly across the landscape? It wouldn't surprise me if the bullets outweigh the solder anywhere that's had a war in the last 20 years...) (and there are people who claim that the whole "lead paint" banning was essentially cover-up for the TEL situation (kids living in urban environments that continually smell like car exhaust, with high lead levels in their bodies, eh? They must be eating paint chips!), and that lead-based paint has some important advantages over the replacements.) There's too much politics; find something highly visible and point a finger, whether or not it's the (or even "a") major problem. I'm not saying it's NOT AN issue, just that... I dunno.

...and TEL was just an example. Also consider household and professional insecticides, herbicides, drugs and medicines, solvents, and the usual waste products of peoples trying to industrialize to modern levels of technology. For instance, Sierra club claims that the most significant source of mercury pollution is ... coal fired power plants!

eWaste is nice and visible, and you can recognize a computer when you see one in a landfill, and there's apparently a booming business in scavanging eWaste by environmentally questionable practices, but I'm far from convinced that it ought to be a major concern, compared to other things.

yes, in fact the largest source of atmospheric mercury pollution on the west coast USA is... *chinese* coal plants.

In NYC it's mostly coming from power plants in the mid-west with ridiculously large smokestacks that pump their exhaust into the upper atmosphere to beat out their state's regulatory measures.

Oh, I wasn't forming an argument :-) either way. Especially now with more companies following this type of leadership, of course lead is probably the least of our worries. Looking at the "landfill" situation in the picture, would you want to drink from a nearby well ? Since no part of the computer is "organic", it is all poisonous in one degree or another. But, of course, we do have to pick our battles because some things (automobile batteries for instance that you mentioned) are worse, at least. Since any form of recovery from what we are doing to the planet is all funded by the middle and lower classes, and the upper pretty much won't get a hoot until they can't survive anymore...

Oh I just noticed the one header above mentions TV's, but it isn't the electronics that pose the biggest problem, but the coating inside the tube. That stuff is horribly toxic (last time I read anything about it).

Have you seen how components are desoldered for re-use in places like China and India?

They have a small fire heating a metal plate, and they rest the circuit board on there until thing start to smoke, then they bash the circuit board to make the bits fall out.

All this is done in small sheds and the like, with no ventilation except maybe a small fan. Inevitably, that means that the workers spend their days breathing in a thick cloud of fumes full of lead etc.

Really healthy.

Sounds like the way I use to salvage chips. (though of course, not hours per day, all the time, as a job.) But on the other hand, this sort of nanny-ism is one of my major objections. Noxious fumes aren't exactly a subtle hazard. Who are we to tell people "this is too dangerous for you to do; you should just sit there in abject poverty and slowly starve like GOOD third-world proles. Maybe we'll send food or something, but naughty-naughty: no playing with our trash in an effort to improve your lot..." (There was one particularly sad comment in the NG article: apparently a working used computer is worth more in the third world than it is in the cash-rich first world. I guess that makes a certain amount of sense, but perhaps the whole OLPC effort should be redirected to collecting, identifying/fixing, and distributing USED computers for less than $100 each, instead of trying to build something new...)

Ugh, no I hadn't heard about that, and it would not just be the lead, but any flux that may still be present, and etc. *sigh*. Sounds to me like it is worthwhile to buy those new. :-) BTW: in my area, we have to two choices when ridding ourselves of a tv / computer monitor that is unrepairable: #1: we can buy a tag and some "special" trash men / women come and pick up the bulky / hazardous item or #2: take it a part, and get a pair of pliers and "break off" the small glass tab at the very end of the tube. This will equalize the pressure (no more vacuum) and keep the regular trash man from imploding the tube in the truck while he is standing there. In the past, I have broken one small 14 " monitor screen and the silvery dust that came out of it was almost impossible to clean up (it ended up on the sidewalk and would not "brush or wash" away). I have since then, "nipped them in the bud" so to speak :-)

holy crap. thats a lot of computers. that cant be good for the environment lol...when will people learn not to buy dells. there built to go out of date in 2 months lol

When people get tired ofthis stuff and some of it is still semi-usable, do what I do: donate it to a tech school or if it still works, I offer it for free to any student that could use it.

I watched a pod on Current about this. It is so sad. Not only is it polluting Ghana, but it is death waiting to happen. People go through these things with little to no protection against the harmful effects. I'll be back with the pod link.

people are so wasteful, before I ever throw any electronics out I gut it throw out the case, put all the circuit boards in a pile, later extract all usable components, then discard the circuit boards, saving between 50 and 70% of the inards. Capacitors are the easiest to save.

For a second, I thought you somehow got a picture of my closet... And now I almost wish you did :/

A great deal of your discarded mattresses go to Haiti and surrounding areas... Just take a trip down the Miami river and look at the cargo ships loaded with mattresses. I imagine at least some of those get used though...

They are going to have a large room full of them at the upcoming HOPE convention in NY. The blog says they will be there for people to "Fool around with, try to make something work, or just take home with you." And, if I go, I am allowed to contribute my own obsolete pieces to the pile :-)