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Beware of pollution from hi-tech gadgets

M. Somasekhar

MUNICH, May 23

BEWARE! Pollution and junk disposal are now a real problem with hi-tech gadgets. Proliferation of mobile phones, PCs, laptops, fax machines, TVs etc. means, rising electronic wastes.

Despite the development of `disposable mobile phone' in the US and the growth of `mobile phone swap-shops', and `take-back' old PCs by computer makers, the challenge to handle the problems of electronic pollution and disposal is, indeed, daunting.

In Germany, for example the BUND, an independent organisation for protection of environment, estimates around 1.5 million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste land up in refuse collection depots or incinerators in the country each year, of which 250,000 tonnes is computer hardware.

If you go more global, the cocktail of communications gadgets — 2.2 million PCs, 3 million fax machines and over 6.5 million telephones, both fixed and mobile are thrown out each year. What happens to them? They are mostly destroyed.

Destruction not only means loss of valuable resources but also material in the form of platinum, gold and silver. Unless carefully disposed, these components can release harmful substances into the air. For example, platinum, the different poisons in batteries such as lead, heavy metals, condensers in printed circuit boards (PCBs) and many other materials used in the production of electronic goods pose dangers of pollution. If you take the PC alone, which is rapidly becoming a part of the home, conservative estimates put the figure of this gadget as functional in 400 million private homes and offices. In Germany, 47 per cent of all households have a PC. Around 40 million people possess a mobile phone. Unless efficient ways of disposal or recycling of the electronic wastes are developed, the threat from these devices is soon to emerge as one of the biggest ecological challenges in the future. At the IFAT 2002, the 13th International Trade Fair for Environment, Waste Water and Waste Disposal, which just concluded here these emerging issues were highlighted. Discussions also centred around some of the initiatives under way from the European Union (EU) as well as on developing innovative solutions.

The Environment Ministers in the EU had in June 2001 proposed guidelines on electronics waste. However, there were differences on a couple of core issues such as a recommendation for a general ban on throwing away such devices and on the quotas for recycling.

Meanwhile, some of the leading computer makers and electronics giants, realising this imminent problem, have voluntarily unveiled programmes to take back old equipment with the objective of dismantling and reusing whatever is worth and in the bargain learn techniques, which ensure that the future models are easier to dismantle and recycle. The disposable mobile phones made from recycled paper give only one hour of telephone time, with the limitation that its owner can only make and not receive calls. There was little demand because the current industry/consumer trend is towards newer models with more versatile features and not second-hand, said some of the industry exhibitors at the fair.

With a boom in the computer, electronics and telecommunication sector predicted in highly populated countries such as India, China, and other Asian `tiger economies', the numbers of these hi-tech gadgets is bound to spiral skywards. And with user of the products of the unfolding communication revolution such as mobile phones, PCs, laptops, TVs, fax machines and what have you, going younger and younger, there is big business and big challenges both in the manufacture and sale as well as in clean and efficient ways of disposal or recycling are lying ahead, say experts.

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