The toxic chemicals used to make technology products are increasingly controversial. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardents (BFRs) are present in everything from computer monitors to mobile phones, with the potential to harm not only technology users but to those who end up dealing with them when the products reach the end of their useful life.
Despite the obvious environmental problems and the availability of alternative materials, many technology companies are still dragging their feet on producing IT with no toxic substances in them.
The valuable metals in technology, such as copper, mean there will always be a black market in which obsolete IT is traded. As Renee Blanchard, campaign associate at Greenpeace says, "The fact is there are precious metals in these products and people want them and can reuse them." It's impossible to guess the volume of equipment that finds its way from western economies to the shores of India, Africa and China each year but the UN estimates that between 20 and 50 billion tonnes of e-waste gets generated a year and much of this is not getting properly recycled.
The problem is immeasurable, and it is disadvantaged people in developing countries who bear the brunt. They work at dangerous dumps breaking up old IT, and use dangerous methods to get to the valuable copper wires. Burning releases toxic chemicals, causing respiratory diseases and potentially causing serious health problems such as cancer. The way equipment is dumped and burned is also causing harm to the environment in these countries, and the infrastructure to recycle it properly doesn't yet exist.
The problem can seem too big to tackle, and too far away to properly appreciate. But campaigners say that consumers of IT - especially large-scale business consumers - have a crucial role to play and can make a difference by tweaking their purchasing decisions.
Blanchard says, "We wouldn't have Apple - which has eliminated PVC - if the answers weren't already there. Lenovo, Dell and others are just slow, whether it's a lack of will or whether the company is just slow to respond. People are increasingly asking questions of companies, although it's mostly at a consumer level right now. As the elimination of toxic chemicals becomes more important generally we'll take it to our workplaces."
Environmental technology expert Catalina McGregor, the United Nations Agency ITUT Liason Officer for the OECD and the European Commission, is keen to get corporate ICT buyers focusing on ethical procurement.
"It is much easier today to stipulate both environmental and ethical requirements when placing an IT tender," she says. "CIOs have done an excellent job of pushing back IT refresh cycles from two years to four and many have even hit the five-year mark. But the full chain of ecological IT - clean hardware, datacentre and the power hungry network - is the next big job."
Adrian Harding, policy advisor for waste management at the Environment Agency, says it is smaller companies whose e-waste often goes under the radar. "We are seeing a lot of equipment coming out of businesses where someone will knock on the door and ask if they have got any old equipment, and the business thinks it's a good way to clear their outbuildings."
He agrees technology needs to be designed with fewer toxic chemicals, but warned that this is not the whole answer to the problem.
"We would be keen on products that are well designed and that are easy to recycle and repair for a second life. What you wouldn't want to do is say that if only we made kit cleaner, illegal exports wouldn't matter. They will always matter. I would accept it causes less harm, but it's certainly not suggesting that this stuff can be dealt with in a casual way if PVC and BFRs are removed."
But while it's only one part of the problem, IT buyers still have a massive part to play in improving the situation.
Blanchard said, "Procurement people have an untapped power. They're the ones that these companies are targeting to make the big purchases. If managers are asking Dell all the time for a product that doesn't have PVC, they're going to come out with it quickly."
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