Computing adds up to toxic waste

The disposal of computers, monitors, keyboards, printers and other IT consumables, continues to be the waste management problem of our age. This environmentally hazardous gear is being dumped at landfill sites at a rate that is three times faster than any other waste stream in the Asian region, according to PlanetArk chairman Peter Shenston.

"There is a lot of unmanaged and secretive importation of these goods in Asia and most of it is currently going to landfill," he said.

"The problem is that it is far too hazardous to go into normal landfill because it contains more than 1000 different metals, chemicals and plastics; as we know lead and mercury can cause cancer as well as nerve damage."

As chairman of PlanetArk, which manages dozens of environmentally-friendly community programs, Shenston prefers not to engage in finger pointing but does believe the private sector needs to be more proactive.

"Australian companies can justify the cost of recycling because it should be the cost of doing business; it is better than forcing the government to act," Shenston said.

PlanetArk's latest program encourages the business community to return printer cartridges via 18,000 boxes located within corporations, government departments and retail outlets.

One of the program's founding members, Lexmark, reincorporates some of the waste into its products, but Shenston said there is still a long way to go to deal with the 18 million laser and inkjet cartridges that end up in landfill each year.

He said an estimated 5 per cent of cartridges are being returned now for recycling, but PlanetArk is attempting to double that figure within two years.

Only last week a conference was held in Melbourne to discuss the procurement of environmentally-friendly products and services dubbed the Australian Greening Procurement Forum.

At the event Canon Australia announced what the company said was the world's first multifunction device, the C6800 printer, to comply with the European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive.

The EU directive aims to eliminate six hazardous chemical substances from the manufacturing process by 2006.

Canon aims to have all its products RoHS compliant by the end of 2004, 18 months before the mandate is enforced.

Hazards of e-waste

The Environment Management and Policy Research Institute in India has identified some of the main hazards associated with the dumping of obsolete computers and discarded electronic components. The burning of printed circuit boards at a low temperature leads to the release of extremely toxic components which can cause cancer, a report by the institute said. Barium found in e-waste, it added, could damage the heart and liver while other chemicals such as beryllium found in computer motherboards and cadmium in chip resistors and semiconductors are poisonous and could lead to cancer.

Chromium in floppy disks, lead in batteries and computer monitors, and mercury in alkaline batteries and fluorescent lamps also pose severe health risks. Other substances such as copper, silver and tin could also be damaging.

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