The Information Age is spawning faster and cheaper computers every two to three years. But each computer generation is contributing to an environmental time bomb: thousands of discarded monitors that contain tons of toxic lead.
No one is sure how much "e-waste" is produced each year, whether it's thrown into trash bins or stored in attics and closets.
But a California environmental group estimates that 300 to 600 million personal computers in the U.S. are obsolete and could be headed to landfills in the next few years. The average computer monitor contains three to five pounds of lead, the group says, with lesser amounts in the computer processing units.
"It's an incredibly big issue right now," said Sheila Davis, director of the clean computer campaign for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Experts say there is no way to prevent discarded computers, monitors and other electronics with toxic materials from being shipped to developing countries, where activists say electronics are torn apart with no environmental oversight.
Two years ago, researchers from the Silicon Valley group found workers in China tearing apart computers by hand, toiling in scrap yards where conditions were "just horrendous," Davis said.
Environmental experts say that computers should be discarded only in designated recycling programs. But in Maryland, as in most other states, there is no law that prevents someone from throwing a computer into the trash.
"This is basically a toxic waste nightmare waiting to happen," said Dr. Dan K. Morhaim, a state delegate who is a physician.
The hazard comes from the cathode ray tubes that create visible images on computer screens, which - like those in television sets - are encased in lead, a necessity to shield users from radiation.
But unlike most televisions, computers in many homes and businesses are upgraded or replaced every two to three years, creating a mountain of unused machines. "Just about everybody has an old computer or monitor sitting on a shelf or in a closet somewhere that they don't know what to do with," said Jonas Jacobson, director of waste management for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Morhaim has introduced bills in this year's General Assembly aimed at ensuring that computers are recycled.
He compares the dangers posed by old computers to those created by lead paint in older homes, which has caused illness and brain damage in children.
Maryland is one of 20 states examining the problem of computer disposal. Oregon, Washington, Maine and Rhode Island have set up commissions to search for solutions. Massachusetts and California ban computer terminals from landfills.
The European Parliament passed a law in 2001 requiring computer manufacturers to pay for recycling the computers they sell. In the United States, a group of environmental advocates, state and local officials and electronics industry representatives have spent three years trying to craft a solution.
Heather Bowman, a member of the group that represents 2,500 computer manufacturers and dealers, said the electronics industry is willing to accept responsibility for collecting any waste that it creates. But she said the thorniest issues remain unresolved: how to enforce laws or collect fees from a global industry that is constantly changing and conducts much of its business over the Internet.
"The challenges are, how are we going to have a level playing field for the industry and create a system that's economically and environmentally sound?" said Bowman, director of environmental affairs for the Electronic Industries Association.
States, counties and computer firms operate a variety of e-waste recycling programs.
Four Maryland counties - Prince George's, Montgomery, Wicomico and Howard - pay electronic waste recycling firms to collect materials from their landfills. There are about 15 such firms in Maryland, Jacobson said.
In other jurisdictions, state money - though a dwindling pool of it - helps counties pay for periodic drop-off programs at landfills and other public facilities. The state spends about 25 cents for every pound of material collected, Jacobson said.
But Jacobson said funds for recycling programs are drying up. Programs are planned for the rest of the year, but only $50,000 is left to pay for them, and there are no immediate plans to replenish the fund next year, he said.
The private sector might pick up some of the slack.
Subtractions, a Laurel firm, is one of several firms that accept old computers and other electronic equipment from consumers. The firm, which has been operating for four years, charges nothing to collect computer processing units, scanners and printers - which have circuit boards with gold, palladium, copper and nickel that can be resold.
But the company charges fees of up to $24 to take monitors - which must be shipped to a New Jersey processor of lead waste.
"Most people want to do the right thing with this stuff. They don't want it landfilled, and they don't want it stockpiled," said Sarah Manning, who operates the firm with her husband.
The firm also picks up electronic wastes from landfills at state- and county-funded recycling events.
But Morhaim said the recycling events are not enough. Many consumers might either ignore or never hear about the events and dump computers in the trash, where they wind up being incinerated and fouling the air with lead and other toxic matter, he said.
One of Morhaim's bills would require dealers to charge recycling "take back fees" on every computer sold, and another would make computer dealers responsible for collecting and recycling the equipment they sell.
At a hearing on the bills in Annapolis last week, some of the nation's top computer firms agreed that recycling is a necessity. But they argued over methods.
Computer retailers said a one-time fee would give an advantage to out-of-state firms as well as to firms that sell computers over the Internet. About one-third of computers are sold online, experts said.
"Just about anywhere in Maryland is only 45 minutes from the state line," said Jeff Zellmer, a lobbyist for the Maryland Retailers Association.
Maggie McIntosh, who as chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee is a key player on state environmental measures, pledged support for Morhaim's effort.
"Maryland already has a track record of working in this area, and I would be very disappointed if we couldn't move forward on this," she told her committee.
Getting rid of a PC
Anne Arundel County: May 8, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Millersville Landfill and Resource Recovery Facility, Severn, 410-222-7954.
Baltimore City: April 24, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and April 25 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Falls Road and Cold Spring Lane.
Baltimore County: April 3, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Carver Center for Arts & Technology, Towson, 410-887-2000.
Harford County: April 17, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Scarboro Landfill, Street, 410-638-3417.
Howard County: Computers and monitors taken for recycling daily at Alpha Ridge Landfill on Marriottsville Road.