he lifespan of a home computer is now estimated to be 2 to 3 years. With the inevitable replacement comes the thrill of unpacking that shiny new PC and thoughts of years of effortless applications.
But there is a hidden cost beyond what is paid to Dell, HP or Apple. That portion of the cost falls on the backs of developing nations receiving obsolete computer equipment. Vintage computer equipment is often shipped to developing nations. It is frequently unusable and/or those countries are not prepared to make use it. The equipment, loaded with toxins, often ends up in dumps. Evironmental hazards are the result.
Much of the used computer equipment sent from the United States to developing countries for use in homes, schools and businesses is often neither usable nor repairable, creating enormous environmental problems in some of the world's poorest places, according to a report to be issued today by an environmental organization.
According to a report by the Basel Action Network of Seattle, recyclers are sending the equipment abroad to avoid the costs of recycling.
Basel Action Network Web site The report, titled "The Digital Dump: Exporting Reuse and Abuse to Africa," says that the unusable equipment is being donated or sold to developing nations by recycling businesses in the United States as a way to dodge the expense of having to recycle it properly. While the report, written by the Basel Action Network, based in Seattle, focuses on Nigeria, in western Africa, it says the situation is similar throughout much of the developing world.
"Too often, justifications of 'building bridges over the digital divide' are used as excuses to obscure and ignore the fact that these bridges double as toxic waste pipelines," says the report. As a result, Nigeria and other developing nations are carrying a disproportionate burden of the world's toxic waste from technology products, according to Jim Puckett, coordinator of the group.
Unfortunately, keeping consumers interested in purchasing new computers has produced obsolescence on a grand scale.
According to the National Safety Council, more than 63 million computers in the United States will become obsolete in 2005. An average computer monitor can contain as much as eight pounds of lead, along with plastics laden with flame retardants and cadmium, all of which can be harmful to the environment and to humans.
The numbers are truly staggering. Nigeria has been overwhelmed.
At the Nigerian port of Lagos, the new report says, an estimated 500 containers of used electronic equipment enter the country each month, each one carrying about 800 computers, for a total of about 400,000 used computers a month. The majority of the equipment arriving in Lagos, the report says, is unusable and neither economically repairable or resalable. "Nigerians are telling us they are getting as much as 75 percent junk that is not repairable," Mr. Puckett said. He said that Nigeria, like most developing countries, could only accommodate functioning used equipment.
As a result, much material will end up being discarded where it will contaminate the environment.
The environmental group visited Lagos, where it found that despite growing technology industries, the country lacked an infrastructure for electronics recycling. This means that the imported equipment often ends up in landfills, where toxins in the equipment can pollute the groundwater and create unhealthy conditions.
And the sources of this equipment sent by the recyclers? It's often received for free and sometimes from government sources.
Much of the equipment being shipped to Africa and other developing areas is from recyclers in the United States, who typically get the used equipment free from businesses, government agencies and communities and ship it abroad for repair, sale or to be dismantled using low-cost labor.