Importance of Computer Recycling

Each year, Americans dispose of hundreds of millions of computer product units. Most of that e-waste joins our already teeming landfill or goes to outside incinerators. Recently, e-waste is increasingly shipped to Asia. Only a portion of the items discarded, about 40 million units, is recycled. Not only is this a mammoth waste of crude materials, it is a significant danger to our environment. Here in the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency officials agree that the environmental dangers of discarded computer equipment cannot be overstated. CRTs alone contain lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium and other hazardous materials. E-waste, including computer waste, is causing significant health and environmental concerns in the developing world too. 

In addition to the actively discarded items, the EPA estimates that nearly 3/4s of the computers sold in the US are gathering dust in home storage spaces. This is landfill waiting to happen.

What is being e-wasted?

Aside from the issue of environmental impact, this poor utilization of these items means that valuable materials are being simply thrown away. Some of the printed circuit boards contain precious metals such as silver, gold, and platinum. They also contain base metals like iron and copper. There is not yet a satisfying method of completely recycling these circuit boards, though there are several possibilities on the horizon.

What else is wasted?

When there is poor use made of existing computer goods, further manufacturing is promoted. The cheap price of new units makes upgrading an old computer cost prohibitive to many people. This encourages the creation of waste from production of the new units, as well as the packaging discards from shipping them. The old computer is moved to the basement. The new one is purchased to be put in its place. In developing countries, however, what the US might consider an outmoded computer system might be seen as a miraculous gift. Also, even in the US, many schools are badly in need of computer equipment. Refurbishing old systems and sending them along to where they are still needed is a significant method of recycling.

The future of recycling:

Public recycling of electronics has been a thorny issue, since e-waste presents a danger to workers in local recycling centers. This is where business can come into play. There are new recycling methods being developed every day. There are large electronic recyclers that specialize in the safe dismantling and recycling of computer equipment. Some companies reduce the units to their constituent elements like metalFree Articles, glass and plastic. This provides much cheaper raw materials for manufacturing.

Creative thinking is all that is needed to expand the future possibilities for computer recycling. The only limits to this are the limits of the human imagination.


Peter Wendt is a writer and researcher living in Austin, Texas.