I have almost 200 really old iMacs that are supposed to be recycled by Apple before school opens in September. I have an abandoned school building (closed last year due to budget cuts) with another 100 or so badly battered PCs that are in really sad shape, too. The facilities director, though, "has a guy" who picks up e-waste for free. Sounds great, right? They recycle it, so all is well.
Or is it? The UK's Mail on Sunday wrote a truly disturbing piece on e-waste "recycling" at the end of July. Lest one think that this is just inflammatory environmentalist propaganda, the BBC ran a story last week featuring video of horrific environmental devastation resulting from the black market trade in e-waste and the valuable scrap metal that is being extracted from our old computers in countries like Ghana and Nigeria.
Reporters from the Mail wrote
Crouched around small piles of old electronics, boys in filthy trousers take crude home-made hammers to monitors and computer cases. When the screens break open there's a dull 'whump' followed by the sound of tinkling glass.
Schoolboy [, one of the local boys they interviewed,] says he has seen boys lose fingers and others go blind. None can afford a trip to the hospital, let alone tetanus injections or even antibiotic cream.
All over this desolate wasteland, between the mounds of old computers, the boys tend fires that spew acrid black smoke.
We walk to a fire where a huddled group of boys are sullenly stoking a metal pan that splutters with a molten metal.
Streaming black smoke roars from the fire and drifts over to the slums where Schoolboy lives. 'It's lead,' the boys tell us, dead-eyed.
They're feeding the fire with shattered cathode ray tubes. The average computer monitor contains about 5Ð7lb of lead. Another fire is fed with tangled, spaghetti-like clumps of wires; they're burning the plastic-encased copper to get at the precious metal. This releases a carcinogenic cloud of toxins.
Again, the BBC actually shows video footage of the clouds of smoke and young children walking amid broken electronics and toxic waste. Unfortunately, this didn't attract much media attention until sensitive data were discovered on the computers' hard drives:
'In Nigeria we found sensitive documents from the World Bank and we found stuff from child-protection services in the US, where children had been taken away from families,' he [Professor Oladele Osibanjo, director of the Basel Convention Regional Co-ordinating Centre in Nigeria] says. 'IBM didn't really care about the waste issue, but once we told them about data from their hard drives that can be used for all sorts of terrible things - from extortion to hacking into bank accounts - they did something at last.'
The Basel Convention noted above actually prohibits the export of unusable electronics in an attempt to stop this sort of trade. Obviously, it's not working; it doesn't help that the United States joins Afghanistan and Haiti as the only three countries that have not ratified the treaty.
So where are your computers really being recycled? Make them thin clients or get them running a thin Linux distribution if you can; obviously some need to head for the rubbish heap, but all too often we discard computers that still have life left in them under pressure from parents, government agencies, and accrediting bodies. When they must be discarded, take some time to do some research and ensure that they don't end up being melted down in Ghana. There are better ways for our e-waste to be recycled and reclaimed.