Digital dump creates concerns
by Anton Caputo, San Antonio Express-News
25 October 2005 – The halls of San Antonio's city government and the sprawling dumps of Lagos, Nigeria, probably don't have much in common. Much, that is, except a 1999 Gateway computer tagged "Property of City of San Antonio 821465."
After spending its useful life with the city, the PC made its way across the Atlantic to be unceremoniously dumped with thousands of its kind in the Nigerian port city.
The computer is one of about 400,000 computers and monitors a month that end up in Lagos. Most are discarded hulks that, in the case of the monitors, are capable of leaking toxic substances like lead and mercury, according to a report released Monday by the Basel Action Network.
The report, titled "Digital Dump: Exporting High-Tech Re-use and Abuses to Africa," found that the continent is increasingly becoming a dumping spot for electronic waste from developed countries. In 2002, BAN issued a report of similar digital dumping in China, India and Pakistan.
Most is being shipped under the guise of recycling or closing the digital divide by providing developing countries with secondhand equipment they can put to use. Unfortunately, as much as 75 percent of the equipment is considered junk by those businesses in Nigeria that import it, and ends up dumped in ways that would likely not be allowed in the United States.
"The effect is that they are ending up in dumpsites along the riverbed and are not getting recycled and are often burned," said Richard Gutierrez, BAN's toxics policy analyst. "By allowing this type of trade, we as a nation violate environmental justice principals."
It is not clear how the city's computer ended up in the dump. The computers are typically auctioned off at the online site www.publicsurplus.com, according to the city's purchasing department.
It joined thousands of others from private owners, companies and public entities like the city of Houston and state agencies in Kansas, Illinois and Michigan. In several cases, BAN investigators were able to extract data from the hard drives, although they did not test San Antonio's computer.
With the growth of technology, digital waste is becoming a massive problem. The National Safety Council projects that nearly 250 million computers will become obsolete in this country in the next five years, and the average computer monitor contains 4 pounds of lead, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment said the BAN report shows that the federal government and most states, including Texas, do not adequately regulate the recycling and disposal of electronic equipment.
"Producers should take back obsolete equipment and use responsible recyclers so these horror stories come to and end," she said.
Local recyclers acknowledged the dangers of electronic waste, but said that it is possible to safely dispose of computers.
Mike Hancock, president of CTBI Co., said his business recycles about 80,000 pounds of computer equipment a week. The monitors are sold to companies that will reuse the cathode ray tubes. Most of the rest is shipped for recycling to smelters in other states or China, which has been criticized in the past for simply dumping equipment.
But Hancock is quick to produce environmental regulatory documentation for the buyers he deals with.
Jim Martzall, owner of Technology Recycling, also sells the monitors to companies that reuse them. But his company strips the hard drives on site to recycle the precious metals.
"We're hoping that we are still in this business long enough so legislation will catch up with the problem," he said.
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