If you’re anything like me, you probably have a couple of old, unused computers lying around your house gathering dust. In my house, we had six computers until recently, two very old desktops, two relatively old laptops and two new laptops. We had accumulated these six computers in just 11 years since we had a fire in 1998 which destroyed most of our belongings, including our computers. It’s amazing how quickly we accumulate new computers. A lot of this quick accumulation is the result of planned obsolescence, the idea that computer manufacturers design computers to either fail or not be able to keep up with newer technology in a certain period of time. And then, of course, there’s the question of what to do with the old computer when we get a new computer. In fact, the EPA estimates that 30-40 million computers will become surplus each year for the next several years. The EPA also classifies these surplus computers as “hazardous household waste” so simply dumping the computer into a landfill is dangerous.
When I purchased my newest laptop, I got a form to send in along with my old computer so that it could be recycled. The problem with this form for me was that I really wanted to recycle the old desktop computers but they are HUGE and I really didn’t want to pay for the shipping even though the recycling itself would be free. So I decided to check out the options at my local transfer station. It’s a “transfer station”–not a “landfill”–so I was hopeful that they’d have a solution for me.
It turned out that for $8 each, I could dispose of both of the computers at my local transfer station. I believe $5 of the $8 was for the monitor. Apparently, the glass in the CRT of the monitor contains a high amount of lead. The tower portion of the computer contains mercury, cadmium and fire retardant. The mouse, keyboard, speakers and so on apparently don’t contain hazardous waste although since they are made of plastic, they still should not end up in a landfill.
My local transfer station hires a company to take away the hazardous portions of the computer and that’s why we have to pay a fee. When I placed the monitors and the towers in the appropriate sections of the transfer station, I noticed that there were upwards of 50 other systems there, many of which were far older than mine and which looked like they had been there for a long time. I live in a really small town and so I do imagine that it would take a while to accumulate the number of systems that would make a trip to the town by the recycling company worthwhile. Since we’re a small town, our transfer station is completely out in the open, with no building covering any of the materials dropped off there (which raises a whole other issue of what happens when paper gets wet and the fact that we pay by weight to have it taken away). So I did wonder what the environmental impact of having those computers systems sit out in the weather for all these years might be. But at least they won’t end up in a landfill.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.