Technology is often cited by those on the long end of the generational divide as the embodiment of the downfall of society—it’s ruining our kids, they say. Their communication skills are trickling away, and they don’t play outside anymore, and a multitude of other aspersions cast ever since the first tool turned up in the hands of a younger hominid while an older one was around to pontificate on the matter.
The sad reality is, however, that the speedy advance of technology is giving some credence to the old-timer’s call: while the average computer was used for 10 years in the 1980s, the lifespan is just three now, and still falling. Mobile phones have an average life of two years, and they, too, can expect to be kept around less and less as their technology evolves into a handheld PC.
None of this is bad, you say—what’s the problem? The problem is what’s come to be called e-waste: the millions of tons every year of lead, mercury, lithium, and other toxins that are finding their way into our landfills through technology that didn’t exist as recently as 2005. To give you an idea of how fast three years is in technology, 2005 was the release date for the first-generation iPod nano.
Where is all this bad stuff in my technology, anyway?
It depends on the material. Lead is a common component is cathode ray tubes, the old-school TVs that we all had growing up, back before cable TV, LCD flat screens, and 400 channels. Of course, “common” is a relative term—each CRT contained 4 to 8 pounds of the stuff, and as lead paint has taught us, even a little lead is bad. The widespread availability of HDTVs has already consigned a lot of these old warhorses to the landfill, and recession or no, expect far more to head that way as the February 1st, 2009 deadline for the FCC’s digital conversion approaches.
Mercury, on the other hand, is far more rare—popular in the fluorescent lamps that illuminate laptop screens, and in tiny batteries that power circuit boards, but always available in minute amounts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much mercury to render an area’s water supply useless for several years, and so it ‘s absolutely imperative to keep even trace amounts of this metal contained—something that we’re not doing as the largest generation yet of laptops heads for the dumpster.
Finally, there’s lithium—the baby of cell phones, which have switched over to a more efficient medium after being powered by, and filling our landfills for years with, a carcinogen, cadmium. Lithium is the primary component in cell phone batteries that are optimized for high-drain devices, and, since they’re usually specialized for a unit, and that unit has a lifespan of less than two years, are consigned to a quick death.
What, exactly, can lithium, mercury, and lead do to me?
Bad, bad things—they all have severe neurological aspects to their symptoms that manifest themselves in a variety of ways, in addition to other ways of making sure that you do not want to be alive. Lead poisoning is the most common, since it was common as a paint bas for several years—reduced cognitive ability, nausea, irritability, abdominal pain, insomnia, lethargy or hyperactivity and even seizures or a coma are all ways that the presence of toxic amounts of lead in your system can make itself be known. It works by attacking both your peripheral and central nervous systems, and doesn’t stop with you—the damage can also manifest itself through birth defects in your offspring.
Lithium is almost as bad—it can put you into a coma as well, and offers a chance for permanent neurological damage, but won’t pass on the deadly legacy to your children. Mercury? A veritable cakewalk, as your skin first feels like it’s itching constantly (peripheral neuropathy, an attack on your nervous system), and then it peels off, a symptom called desquamation.
Is anybody doing anything about it?
Every major manufacturer has a recycling program for their products, and most of them will accept their products for free. Lenovo/IBM even goes so far as to accept other manufacturer’s junk at over 30,000 drop-off locations, an effort towards corporate responsibility that leads their industry. There are also several retailer programs, of which Staples has the most universal program—bring them your e-waste, and they’ll accept almost anything: computers, laptops, printers, faxes, monitors, and all-in-ones. The EPA has a list of all the major donation programs available and Earth 911 has a roster of especially worthy causes, as well.