Faced with the pending of arrival of a third home computer and the graveyard of old computer parts in my closet has started me thinking about where all this stuff ends up. Like most technophiles, I've long been in denial about the environmental consequences of the computer industry (both in production, and particularly disposal). The ultra-rapid obsolescence of our technological toys means they become worthless junk within an unforgivably short period. Like me, most of you probably have a box somewhere with formerly cutting edge gadgets- laptops, Palm Pilots, mobile phones, Zip drives, and a dizzying array of cables and power supplies for who can remember what. Then think about the enterprise-level acquisitions of large companies, government agencies, and universities who collectively spend in the billions on updating their computers every year. In a recent article in Harper's Matthew Power notes that., "The half-billion computers rolling around toward obsolescence in America contain 6.3 billion pounds of plastics, 1.6 billion pounds of lead, and 630,000 pounds of mercury, along with cadmium barium, arsenic, and a periodic table of other hazardous elements" (The Trash Folder, January 2005). Unsurprisingly, the developed world's technological excess trickles down to the third world, but not in the form of donated computers for schools in rural Africa, if that's what you were thinking. Instead, old computers turned in for recycling are shipped off to places like Guiyu, China, where they are stripped for any valuable metals using highly-caustic chemical processes. "In one method," Power notes, "the [circuit] board is immersed in molten lead-tin solder that has been heated in a wok, over an open coal fire, by a worker with no protective clothing or ventilator."
Just something for us all to think about the next time we boot up.