Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Trashed computers are Double Trouble


Landfills get toxic metals; hackers get information

Click here to e-mail James
Imagine just throwing away a lump of lead weighing up to five pounds - putting it out with the rest of the trash to be put into a landfill or who knows where else.

Or think about putting out your wallet - with all the ID and credit cards inside, on top of the garbage can.

But that's exactly what thousands of us do when we throw away our old computers, monitors, printers, TVs, VCRs and PDAs.

Think about it. A 15-inch monitor packs up to 1.5 pounds of lead solder that holds the tube together. Some larger TVs or CRT monitors can hold more than eight pounds of the stuff. Other toxic metals such as mercury, barium and a DNA-damage causing substance called hexavalent chromium are prevalent in all kinds of electronic equipment.

As for security, the most rudimentary hacker can still glean info off of a hard drive even after it has been reformatted.

And don't forget the other stuff. One computer-recycling firm reported that several patient records started printing off a printer discarded by a local hospital. It turns out the information was still stored inside the portable memory such devices now all include - and the printer just needed to be reset.

Some trash collection experts estimate Americans throw away 500 million pounds of computer equipment a year.

In Hamilton County, only about 2 to 3 percent of discarded electronic equipment is recycled or disposed of properly, according to officials with the county's waste district and Department of Environmental Services.

"It is really becoming a major issue for us," says Christy Kellner, business specialist with the department. "We started an event where we took in this equipment four years ago and got 50 tons. This spring we got 240 tons and now do it twice a year.

"Still, I'll walk down my street and see the TVs and stuff and get a twist in my stomach, knowing all that stuff is headed for the landfill."

[img]
Elli Workum stands amid old computers at Technology Recycling Group.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
Enter Elli Workum, a former IT executive who started a Reading-based company last year. Workum, 45, is chief executive officer and president of Technology Recycling Group, which is joining what is becoming a very competitive and perhaps lucrative field.

Backed by silent partners, Workum says she is already profitable with her two-person operation. She won't offer specifics on finances or pricing, saying prices are catered to individual customers.

Workum's focus has primarily been with businesses. The Wyoming native offers to take old computers and the like away, and then she and a co-worker break down the items all the way to the base elements. Plastic gets ground up to be used in products such as synthetic decking. Glass is sent off to a recycler, where lead is removed and broken down. The glass then is melted down to be reused. Other metals such as copper also are recycled and resold.

But she also tells prospective clients they could be sued if information on their improperly discarded computers turns up somewhere it shouldn't.

"That really gets their attention," she says, adding that she offers to completely wipe records clean. She also will help clean out data and restore computers if the customer wants the equipment donated to charity.

Workum says that computer/electronic recycling and computer disposal is becoming a big business and that she has 200 possible competitors nationwide.

Still, she acknowledges her biggest competitor might be that trash truck. While it is illegal for businesses to dump this stuff in the garbage, there is nothing prohibiting a private citizen from letting all their electronics hit the landfill, according to Kellner and officials with Rumpke, one of the area's largest waste collection companies.

Rumpke spokeswoman Amanda Wilson says that the company has contemplated creating a sorting process to take out such materials before they are dumped into the landfill, but that such an operation would be impractical and unsafe.

"We just encourage people to use the 'household hazardous waste days' the county offers," Wilson says. "And many major computer companies such as Hewlett-Packard or Dell offer recycling programs."

Workum says the same thing, but says she is working with the county to land a state environmental grant of $100,000 to help expand capacity. She could then help the county start taking on more household items more often than at the twice-yearly hazardous collection days.

She's also trying to turn other potential competitors into customers.

"It's a hard sales pitch at first, because many businesses and people try to make a buck by selling it off or donating it," Workum says. "And the nonprofits also are a big issue. But I'll go to them on the backside and do a more thorough job than they can do.

"And more and more, given what is at stake here, people are listening."

Phone follow-up

A follow-up note on my last column about Time Warner Cable starting to offer local and long-distance phone service through a modem and Internet connection. Customers can keep their current phone numbers if they switch.

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Toxic technology

Here is a list of some of the substances found in computer equipment and their potential effects:

Lead: Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) displays contain 4 to 8 pounds of lead. Most solder used on circuit boards includes lead. Lead is toxic to the kidneys, nervous and reproductive system and inhibits mental development of young children and fetuses.

Phosphor: This is applied to the inside of a CRT faceplate; the Navy warns this substance is "extremely toxic."

Barium: Used in the front panel of a CRT to protect users from radiation. Short-term exposure can cause brain swelling; muscle weakness; and damage to the heart, liver and spleen, according to some studies.

Hexavalent chromium: Used as corrosion protection and steel hardening. It can cause DNA damage and asthmatic bronchitis.

Beryllium: Commonly found on motherboards and connectors; classified as a human carcinogen.

Mercury: Light bulbs in flat panel displays, switches and printed wiring boards all contain mercury; high levels of exposure can contribute to brain and kidney damage, harm a developing fetus and can be passed down through breast milk.

Source: Clean Computer Campaign

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E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com




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