Herald Journal Columns
May 29, 2006, Herald Journal

A flood of electronics


Our insatiable lust for the latest electronic devices has some distinctly un-cool side effects.

That slick new razor phone, or the latest laptop may look good, and may be very useful.

But, what about last year’s model?

What was once the latest and greatest is now reduced to a collection of elements, and not very nice ones.

Circuitry, batteries, and liquid crystal displays may contain all sorts of toxins, including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, copper, and lead.

Even the fancy plastic casing of these devices may have been treated with brominated flame retardants.

The EPA estimates that we are throwing away about 130 million cell phones per year.

In addition to “disposable” phones, the National Safety Council predicts that 250 million personal computers will become obsolete in the next five years.

And, based on EPA estimates, this trend seems likely to get worse. The average lifespan of a personal computer in the US has been falling, from 4.5 years in 1992, to an estimated two years in 2005.

Not only are we buying more computers, but the computers we buy are not lasting as long.

So, what happens to all of these items, which are considered toxic waste in many states, when we are done with them?

The Star Tribune reported recently that dumping old TVs and computers in landfills will be illegal after July 1.

Fortunately, there are options.

There are many organizations that accept donations of used cell phones and computers. The items are then refurbished and given to those in need.

Programs of this kind can significantly extend the life of the item, and provide benefits to people who could not otherwise afford a computer or a cell phone

Some organizations provide cell phones to senior citizens or victims of domestic violence for use in an emergency.

In situations where donation or repair are not an option, then electronic recycling, (or eCycling, as some people prefer to call it) is the thing to do.

There are companies across the state that are equipped to handle this process.

The legislature has been unable to come to agreement on whether manufacturers or retailers should pay to administer consumer electronic recycling programs.

Whatever is decided, we can rely on the fact that it is the consumer that will ultimately end up footing the bill.

That is OK. It is just one of the costs of living in an advanced consumer society.

And we all benefit if there are programs to ensure that these materials don’t get dumped where they will leach toxins into the environment.

Instead of looking only at the problem though, we would do well to look at the source.

If there was more pressure on manufacturers to design products using more environmentally responsible materials, and in a way that would extend their usable life, it would limit the amount of technojunk that ends up in our landfills.

Perhaps we have become too resigned to living in a throwaway society.

The days when we can fix things ourselves, or take them to a local repairman, like Andy did in Mayberry, may be a thing of the past.

This is not because there are no talented repairmen around; it is due to the fact that most things are designed to be thrown out rather than repaired. Even for those items that could be repaired, it is often cheaper to replace them than it would be to try to repair them.

Maybe it is too late to change that.

One thing is certain, if we don’t change our thinking, and if we don’t stop the tide of buying every new electronic trinket that comes along, and replacing it every time a new model is available, we could end up drowning in a sea of our own excess.

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