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Pollution Solution

Call it the detritus of the digital age. Heavy metals such as lead are oozing into the world’s landfills from computer equipment chucked out with the trash. Scavengers in developing countries are extracting minute quantities of copper and gold from discarded motherboards via toxic processes. Two researchers at the United Nations University argue that combating ...

Call it the detritus of the digital age. Heavy metals such as lead are oozing into the world’s landfills from computer equipment chucked out with the trash. Scavengers in developing countries are extracting minute quantities of copper and gold from discarded motherboards via toxic processes.

Two researchers at the United Nations University argue that combating cyberpollution will require more than aggressive computer recycling programs, such as those mandated by the European Union. A new book, Computers and the Environment (see www.it-environment.org/compenv.html), edited by physical scientist Eric Williams and political scientist Ruediger Kuehr, proposes a simpler solution: convincing consumers to hang on to and upgrade computers they already own.

Upgrading makes more sense than recycling, because the process of manufacturing just one desktop computer with a 17-inch monitor consumes 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 50 pounds of chemicals, and more than 3 tons of water. Multiply those by the more than 130 million computers sold each year worldwide, and buying a new machine simply to use e-mail, the Web, and other general office applications is unnecessary, the researchers argue. It’s far more affordable, and environmentally friendly, to upgrade an existing machine — if you can overcome that "got to have it" attitude.

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