E-Waste Detox

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Having recently moved to Chicago, I feel especially lucky to live in a big city that cares so much about its environmental image. Blue bins are moving into neighborhoods, our mayor has declared major green goals, and Fast Company has just declared Chicago the green leader for the world’s “fastest cities”. Admittedly it's not perfect here, but in a lot of ways, thanks to the passions of its forward thinking citizens, Chicago is moving in the right direction.

Since WorldChanging Chicago first wrote about e-waste and electronic recycling, the topic has become increasingly important to our community. In May 2007, the Tribune published a story about Chicago firms “turning up the notch” on their handlings of computer and electronic recycling. Here we delve further into the debate on e-waste as well as the role individual consumers play in the process.

Imagine life without your computer…

You wouldn’t be reading this post right now.

What is inside these machines, allowing them to glow and chirp and guide you through the internet? Unfortunately, as much as we love computers, the answer is toxic chemicals. After a computer’s life cycle is through, these materials are commonly referred to as electronic waste, or ‘e-waste’ for short. Your PC is a chemical cocktail of poisonous mixers. The list of ingredients includes: lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), brominated flame retardants (BFRs), hexavalent chromium, and decabromodiphenyl ether.

This dangerous mishmash brings up the query of proper disposal and recycling—what is protocol with a plastic box filled with poison? Does anyone really know the steps to go about disposing of/recycling a dead computer?

Most computer manufacturers (HP, Dell, Apple) have some sort of recycling program set up, but as of 2007 the companies report only about a 10% retrieval of their wares for recycling. That means that around 90% are most likely disposed of improperly. Not a very promising ratio. So, why not tackle the problem from the get-go by creating computers with less toxic waste? Why should we be satisfied with this dismal percentage of computers not making it to an adequate final resting place? Why must these machines contain chemicals with the potential to leach into communities? Does e-waste have to be toxic waste?

Greenpeace didn’t think so when they began their investigation into e-waste and computer manufacturers’ environmental profiles back in 2004. The environmental organization published their results in the form of a scorecard guide in 2006, and Greenpeace continues to push computer manufacturers to do more to clean up their insides.

Most recently, Greenpeace targeted Apple with a campaign backed by Apple-fans who asked Steve Jobs, in all sorts of hip and interactive ways, to green Apple’s act. Greenpeace’s viral strategy has been reasonably successful, ultimately fueling Steve Jobs’ well-documented response on May 3rd: “A Greener Apple.”

Okay—so Apple worked out their previously unreported environmental stance, and currently reports a ‘green’ state of affairs. But what about the fact that each year they launch a ‘new’ iPod? There’s an insidious and curious pattern to the lifespan of these devices and their connection to the concept of planned obsolescence. Releasing a new version definitely fills the void for technophiles and Apple fanboys, but what about spending some of the R&D budget on engineering an iPod that would have a longer life expectancy? Or an environmentally friendly battery that could be recycled and replaced? With more 100 million iPods sold, that alone could reduce a substantial amount of e-waste.

Furthermore, I find myself questioning whether or not Steve Jobs truly ‘cares’ about this e-waste debate. Noting his release of “A Greener Apple” just one week before the company’s major annual meeting, I can’t help but ask if he is just playing to his shareholders in an attempt to determine their voting patterns with regards to recycling/green product design and to ensure continued popular demand., a website which focuses on the e-waste debate, published an interesting critique of “A Greener Apple.” Basically it seems that while Jobs and Apple are moving in a good direction, the apple is by no means “green to the core.” also identifies the issue that e-waste, like much of the material not suitable for disposal in the United States, is often sent overseas to the Third World, which makes e-waste yet another factor in the ever expanding gap.

To end positively, I want to highlight the user’s voice in this e-waste debate. Steve Jobs’ written explanations were largely in response to Apple-users calling out for progressive change in the manufacturing of Apple products. Users wanted Apple’s reputation for being a forward-thinking company to be present in its environmental profile. This is a great example of grassroots organization and problem solving—hats off to Greenpeace for leading this endeavor. In this e-waste dilemma, we computer-lovers should all take a step in this direction: holding the manufacturers of the products we love responsible for creating cleaner, greener goods.

If the demand exists, it won’t be long before we have computers on our desks and in our pockets performing beautifully and looping back into production through recycling and reuse. Apple-users stimulated Jobs, hopefully sparking a renewed passion at Apple to remain the progressive force behind the digital lifestyle. It’s up to us to continue this work, voting with our dollar and asking the companies we admire to be worthy of our respect—by creating sustainable products.

E-waste does not have to be toxic waste, but we must do our part in making this a reality.


What if a citizen, when done with a computer, could get a specially market container from the city that could contain the computer when it's thrown away so they can easily be pulled from the regular trash? This would be particularly east in Chicago Blue Cart neighborhoods

Posted by: Marty on September 10, 2007 2:26 PM

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