Although they helped spark a boom in the 1990's economy and have become so ubiquitous it's difficult to find a business not dependent on them, computers and their peripherals are coming back to haunt the culture they have come to define.
Getting rid of e-waste (older computers, printers, hubs,drives and other peripherals) is becoming a problem for consumers and, especially, for landfills.
Landfill are unequipped to handle the hazardous materials in the e-waste and there is growing concern about water and soil contamination by lead, cadmium, mercury and other heavy metals used in electronics and computers that have outlived their usefulness or have given way to the next generation of faster machines.
In Spencer, the Iowa Lakes Resource Conservation & Development has developed a computer recycling project because, as RC&D coordinator Jeff Kestel said on Wednesday at the Pilot-Tribune, "there was an understanding in Northwest Iowa that we are throwing our e-waste into the area's landfills."
Kestel explained that the Iowa Lakes RC&D is local non-profit organization that works on grassroots projects that are important to the community, such as conservation activities.
And conservation of land, water and industrial materiel is at the heart of the e-waste recycling project.
Kestel says that now is the time to act to keep e-waste out of landfills, that the country will have to clean it eventually. There will be more involved in cleaning up the mess than taking care of it now, he said.
"It's hard to make a change now when it's so easy to just get rid of the problem by throwing it away," Kestel said. "It's easy to have 20-20 hindsight, but we're going to have some significant problems within the next 20 years if we continue to throw hazardous materials into the landfills."
The way material is disposed of in landfills now will only amplify future problems, Kestel said.
"Computer monitors and CPUs which contain large amounts of lead and mercury are thrown on the landfills and run over to pack the dumps," he said. "So the material is ground up and combined, making it harder to remove when that time comes. These materials have been proven to be hazardous to people's health."
Kestel said that cities and counties will either have to dig up the landfills or create barriers to the soil and water so the toxins won't infiltrate into the surrounding land and ground water.
"I believe that the public doesn't want this and will make every effort to recycle its e-waste," Kestel said. "But it costs. We charge $12 to take monitors from people although we take CPUs and other material for free for the time being. Big businesses have been mandated by the EPA to recycle their machines."
There isn't a lot of money in recycling computers and the project can't take them for free, hence the cost to take the monitors.
Kestel said the RC&D program in Spencer was set up to be a go between to keep computers out of the landfill and getting them to recyclers. The project, Kestel said, is always looking around for another organization to take over the recycling as a business.
"We also refurbish older computers that have some life left in them and donate them to non-profits and schools," he said. "It's a good project and most people want to keep them out of the landfills, but what we're up against are overhead costs like the building and salaries."
One source of e-waste, Kestel said, are schools which tend to have a lot of old computers stored.
Part of the problem, and expense, in getting rid of old computers, Kestel said, is that there are as many as four different types of plastic used in making the monitors and CPUs, making them almost impossible to recycle. The monitors which also contain large amounts of lead have a flame-retardant coating which inhibits the ability for the plastic to be recycled.
For those who want to recycle their e-waste, please call the Iowa Lakes RC&D at (712) 262-2083 or visit them at 14 W. 21st St. in Spencer.