Intervenor: Vol 25. No 1 January - March 2000

Bill and Me: webs, windows and waste

In April 2000, the State of Massachusetts announced a ban against disposing old computer monitors in landfills or incinerators. Apparently, some 75,000 tons per year of electronic junk are sent to disposal in Massachusetts, raising fears about the environmental fate of toxic substances found in the circuitry of the discarded components. No such ban exists in Ontario, which leaves consumers free to send electronic junk to local dumps and landfills.

In the same week that the Massachusetts ban was announced, a U.S. federal judge found that Microsoft Corporation violated American anti-trust laws by attempting to monopolize the web browser market. The case centred on Microsoft's bundling of its Internet Explorer browser into the Windows operating system, now found in 90% of personal computers in the world.

The timing of these seemingly unrelated developments is hardly coincidental. Indeed, the basic ecological principle that "everything is connected" seems particularly applicable here-the web of life intersected by the world wide web.

On the one hand, Microsoft has dominated the personal computer market, and has been remarkably successful-along with other software and hardware manufacturers-in ensuring that computer technology has pervaded many aspects of home and office life.

On the other hand, Massachusetts is now trying to come to grips with the inevitable-and largely overlooked-ecological consequences of our throw-away society as consumers jettison older (and still serviceable) computers, with older (and still operational) software, in favour of the latest offerings from the computer industry.

The Massachusetts and Microsoft developments also raise larger concerns about the environmental and resource implications of our increasingly wired world. What are the cumulative effects of the air and wastewater discharges of computer manufacturers and related industries, such as plastic producers? What about the excess packaging commonly used for software and hardware? What is the overall energy demand for running the countless computers now in use, many of which are left online all the time thanks to broadband, high-speed internet connections? What are the environmental costs of ensuring non-stop flow of electricity to these computers from nuclear stations or coal-fired plants?

The answers to these broader questions may not be readily available. Nevertheless, it appears that the computer industry has excelled at one primary task-churning out more and more computers and upgraded software for public consumption. But what happens to the old stuff?

A case in point: my trusty 386 computer (with Windows 3.1) was considered state-of-the-art only a short decade ago. This old computer now sits, barely used, in my daughter's room, which seems to be only a temporary pit-stop before the 386 is finally sent off to the computer graveyard.

This article is being typed on a new Pentium III computer (with Windows 98) using Word software (yet another Microsoft product). Of course, it is only a matter of time before this computer, too, is rendered obsolete. For example, Windows 2000 has already been released, and computer chip manufacturers have recently unveiled 1,000 megahertz processors which run significantly faster than my three month-old computer.

But how just how fast do personal computers really need to be? Does an improvement in computer performance, measured in less than a nanosecond, really matter? How much gigabyte capacity does a hard drive really need? How many software applications do we really need to be running at the same time?

The answer, of course, depends on the needs of the end user-a graphic artist or research scientist may need more computer horsepower than an environmental lawyer pounding out legal arguments. However, the rapid evolution of computer technology seems to have taken on its own life, and the result is an ever-increasing amount of junked computer components.

A trip to my local dump near Kingston only confirms these observations. Every week, more and more old computer monitors, printers, fax machines, and other "obsolete" electronic products are set along the side of the waste pit. If no resident picks them up for reuse or recycling, then these items simply get pushed into the pit, where they will remain buried more or less in perpetuity. The products' plastics are not recovered for recycling, and their circuit boards and batteries pose a long-term threat to local groundwater and surface water.

This scenario is likely being played out at disposal sites across Ontario, particularly since the province has not developed any special regulatory measures in relation to electronic junk. As long as the components are not classified as "hazardous waste", it appears that they can be landfilled with impunity anywhere in Ontario and other Canadian jurisdictions.

But is a simple disposal ban, such as the Massachusetts prohibition, the answer? Perhaps the provinces should develop a "product stewardship" regime that makes computer manufacturers responsible for the entire "cradle-to-grave" lifecycle of their products. Thus, when consumers "need" to buy new computers, manufacturers should be obliged to take the old ones back to ensure that recycling and/or disposal costs are internalized rather than foisted upon local communities.

Computer technology, of course, has become an essential and valuable part of our society. We now have instant access to information-and each other-all across the world thanks to computers and the internet, and we cannot turn back the clock or lash out at the technology in Luddite-like fashion.

However, I still wonder if the societal benefits of being able to order the latest Pokémon product online really justify the environmental risks and resource implications of current computer use and disposal.
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Rick Lindgren is a lawyer at CELA