Computers seem to be obsolete the day after we buy them. Our household currently has six in two locations. My original 64k CPM computer that cost me $2,700 back in 1983 was soon superceded and when it died it went into the town dumpster. Thats not the best place for electronic waste.
Electronic waste includes lead, mercury, nickel, cadnium, and other metals. I was shocked to learn, for instance, that the mercury in an old fever thermometer is enough to poison an entire small lake. But consider the tons of old television sets, computers, printers, copiers, fax machines, microwave ovens, stereo equipment, VCR and DVD players, cellular phones and batteries and their impact if they are simply dumped into our landfills to contaminate the ground water and the environment.
The awareness that her own home included a ton of electronic waste helped inspire Barb Maronen to do something about it. She learned that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was soliciting grant proposals. She applied for and got a $40,000 two-year grant for recycling electronic equipment in five Upper Peninsula counties.
In the past, people were encouraged to drop off electronics in working order at the Good Will, but nowadays who wants a slow computer with only 4 megs of RAM and 16 bit technology for which there is no existing software?
ONE TOWNS SOLUTION
Two recycling dates were set up, one in the spring and one in the fall. The spring collection of household electronic waste took place at a health district building in Hancock. There, barely sheltered from a chilly rain, volunteers weighed, priced, and collected tons of stuff. The parking lot was full. The recycled equipment was bound for Marquettes Star Industries and Interstate Battery.
Recycling wasnt free. Most electronics were charged 15 cents a pound, but TVs and computer monitors, which hold between four and six pounds of lead apiece, cost 20 cents a pound to recycle. That, thanks to the grant, is half the actual cost.
My old Epson printer, 11 pounds, cost me $1.65 to get rid of. Cheap printers are built to last about a year and are sometimes priced below the cost of the ink cartridges needed to refill them. It can be cheaper to throw the old printer away when the ink is used up. But when the printer is replaced, then what? My non-operating Epson 640 joined pallets stacked high with keyboards, dead or obsolete computers, the detritus of an affluent society in continuous upgrade.
This collection is only a fraction of whats out there. Every time I visit the computer lab at Michigan Technological University I find a new generation of computers and monitors. Last year in the hallway I found a pile of discarded printers. At the auction of old electronic gear a year or so ago there were rows of computers which were once top of the line and were then useful only for a few spare parts or for hobbyists willing to tinker.
My old Cromemco C-10 64k CPM computer is long gone, but I still have my 640k Compaq I luggable that cost me $1,700 new. Its now a collectors item and comes complete with a 40 meg hard drive. Compare it with my latest Compag laptop with a 40 gig hard drive and 240 megs of RAM advertised for only $399. By next year it will be obsolete, too, and ready for the next round of recycling.
Watching the rapid development of technology has been exciting, but one is easily dismayed at the prospect of those hidden toxic metals polluting our environment. Hats off to Barb Maronen and those volunteers for their fine work. Leta hope other counties in Michigan follow suit and recycle dead and obsolete electronics.