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This just doesn't compute

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SO YOUR OLD computer won't surf the Internet, won't play new games and increasingly flashes mystical error messages. It's ready for the trash.

But if you put it there, you're planting an environmental time bomb. On average, there's six pounds of lead and 14 pounds of plastic (including toxic dioxin in older units), plus assorted heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, copper and chromium, in the average old monitor and processor.

It's a growing problem for the nation's landfills. With rapid technological advances, Americans will pile up 315 million outdated, unwanted computers by 2004, the National Safety Council estimates.

Massachusetts this year became the first state to ban individuals from tossing computers (and TV sets) into the trash. The European Commission is preparing rules to make manufacturers responsible for disposal of their obsolete electronics. But similar U.S. legislation has failed.

Scattered recyclers are taking old computers, recovering salable materials or refurbishing units for reuse when practical. But they barely make a dent in the supply of castoff computers. Some nonprofit groups accept usable units for distribution to agencies or individuals, but they won't repair nonworking computers.

County landfills in the Baltimore region don't have formal computer recycling programs. All are aware of the problem and encourage people to find school and charities that might accept serviceable units. Baltimore County lists nine places for possible recycle or reuse. A pilot program at Howard County's Alpha Ridge landfill is now accepting computers for two private recyclers.

Experts say up to 95 percent of computer materials could be recycled or reused. Given the environmental dangers of landfilling, there's no reason why computers shouldn't be collected routinely for sensible disposal/recycling, just like motor oil and car batteries.

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