Is Your Computer Killing You?

Ten ways that the computer can hurt your body, mind, and the environment, and what you can do to minimize the damage.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 18, 2006

4 Min Read

10. Environmental Impact
Enough of the direct-to-the-consumer harm. Did you know that feeding your computer jones can damage the planet? Our yearning for bleeding-edge toys has us throwing out hard drives, cell phones, and PDAs the minute something flashier rears its head. While we may take delight in being on the cutting edge of technology, the planet is suffering from the digital detritus.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition bills itself as a "diverse grassroots coalition that engages in research, advocacy, and organizing around the environmental and human health problems caused by the rapid growth of the high-tech electronics industry." Its findings aren't encouraging.

Computers contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. When these computers become outdated, they end up in landfills, poisoning the ground and our groundwater. Despite the efforts of environmental organizations, less than 10 percent of computers are recycled, and of those that are, only a fraction are recycled safely.

What's more, you may literally not see the problem. Greenpeace International reports:

"E-waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of the international law. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47 percent of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal. In the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tonnes of undeclared or 'grey' market electronic waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the Far East, India, Africa and China. In the US, it is estimated that 50-80 percent of the waste collected for recycling is being exported in this way."

A child sits among a pile of wires in Guiyu, China. Children often dismantle e-waste containing hazardous chemicals that can damage their health.© Greenpeace / Natalie Behring

Your Best Defense: Take responsibility for your own computer materials and make sure they land safely when you're finished with them. Trashing them isn't the only option. Contact local charities to see if they have a place for a slightly outdated computer. Post a sign in your neighborhood to see if anyone wants it, or advertise it as a freebie on Craig's List. You may have moved on, but not everyone has.

No luck? Don't try to discard your computer yourself. Get some professional help. Dial 1-800-CLEANUP for state-specific information on how to safely discard your computer equipment. You can also visit the Earth 911 Web site for tips.

For example, after inputting my zip code at Earth 911, I was given four locations, all within a ten-mile drive from my home, that accept discarded computers. Two of them charge a small fee for accepting monitors, but it's money well spent.

If you're extra-dedicated, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition offers a list of U.S. recyclers who have signed the Electronic Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship.

Important: Whether you donate, recycle, or dispose of your computer, be sure to safely remove personal data from your equipment first. See Data Disposal: A Crushing Problem? for tips.

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