This woman in Guiyu, China, was about to smash the cathode ray tube off a computer monitor to retrieve the copper-laden yoke. The lead-laden glass is a hazard, and toxic phosphor dust coats the inside of the monitor.

Photo courtesy Basel Action Network 2001

Recycling Old Computers

Recycling old computers can be accomplished when people follow proper, valid channels. When the recycling trend is on the upswing, the market inevitably starts to respond. Manufacturers are taking back some old electronics from customers and recycling or refurbishing them. In certain instances, companies are improving their products so they contain fewer toxins to begin with. Some companies are doing this voluntarily; others are being forced by government regulations. Legitimate e-waste recycling centers with on-site facilities are also springing up in various cities.

But the sad reality is that for years -- and even to this day -- many so-called recycling operations are simply collection points. Collected electronic devices and parts are sold to scrap brokers, who ship this cargo to developing nations for deconstruction.

So why bother transporting e-waste? Why not recycle it right where it is? Like many aspects of the global economy, the cost of shipping e-waste is more than made up for by the cheap labor available at its destination. Recycling electronics in developing nations (including China, India, Pakistan, Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast)­ is achieved at a fraction of what it would cost in developed countries. Part of the savings also stems from the fact that occupational and environmental laws tend to be weaker in those regions.

Once the e-waste arrives in these economically challenged regions, laborers earn their incomes by recycling these old computers, TVs and cell phones for their core components. And the process is ugly.

In some communities, the young, the old and everyone in between dismantle e-waste every day. Laborers smash and unhinge devices, spraying toxic shrapnel all over the ground, where people with no shoes walk. Then workers employ a variety of methods to track down and remove the metals from objects like circuit boards, semiconductors and wires.

Fire can burn away the flame-retardant cocoons that cradle copper wiring, releasing soot and smoke into the air. Fire also melts the metal off circuit boards and other electronic organs. This allows workers to harvest gold, lead, copper and other materials from the burned plastic husks.

Another method is an acid bath. Soaking the circuit boards in powerful solutions of nitric and hydrochloric acids (highly corrosive to human tissue in strong concentrations) can free the metals from their etched electronic pathways. This process is often done by hand. After that, the recovered resources are sold and re-enter the manufacturing cycle.

The acid, hazardous waste and worthless byproducts are often burned or find their way into local water sources, often by outright dumping. Tests performed on the air and soil that surrounds large recycling operations show a high level of pollution. Researchers are studying how this e-waste recycling affects the local populations. Preliminary reports are expected to show negative results.

Now you have a better idea of the sad journey your computer may have taken after it left the warmth and security of your home office. Continue to the next page for great links about how you can properly dispose of your next outdated, broken computer.