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Toxic Electrons

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Bleeding heart liberals frequently yell and scream about how we in the rich world don't do nearly enough for impoverished people in developing countries. But, to be totally frank, I honestly believe that those pseudo-compassionate twerps don't know what the hell they're hollering about. They're way off base on this one. Why do I say that? Well, did you know that we in the rich world send about 400,000 pieces of computing equipment—computers and monitors—to Nigeria every month? 400,000! Every month! And that's just Nigeria. We also send a lot more stuff to other countries that are also much less well-off than we are. Then again, according to a report titled "The Digital Dump" written by the Seattle, Washington-based Basel Action Network, as much as 75% of that equipment is unusable and not worth the cost of repairing. So what? Big deal! As the proverbial they say, beggars can't be choosers.

OK, OK, so most of the stuff doesn't actually work and can't be made to ever work again. But think of all of the material inside those computers and monitors. Nigeria and other nations in the lesser-developed world receive one heck of a lot of components and minerals as a result of our immense generosity. For example, discarded computers and monitors contain a wealth of lead, cadmium, barium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants—whatever they are. Now I ask you, how more munificent can we possibly get? We're sending flame retardants to countries where, due to abject poverty and other reasons, buildings are usually not nearly as fire-resistant as buildings here. Of course, all of the chemicals listed above are toxic and, according to the report, some become even more hazardous when burned—which is the fate of much of this garbage. Hmm...maybe the fire retardants could come in handy there. After all, we wouldn't want this stuff to burn too quickly and efficiently, now would we? Of course, the flame retardants probably can't be used as such in buildings because they are integrated into the material making up the computer components, but, like I said, beggars can't be choosers.

Thankfully, many jurisdictions in Canada and the United States are being environmentally virtuous in this regard. Several states and provinces in both of our countries have taken the enlightened step of banning electronic waste from our landfills. Note the use of the word "our." What about other people's landfills? Oh, that's perfectly OK. It's somebody else's problem.

Not that I'm knocking that approach. All loyal fans of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy will recognize the power of transferring the problem to someone else. In the third book of Douglas Adam's five-part Hitchhikers' "trilogy," Ford Prefect, one of the lead characters and a writer for the guide named in the series' title, explains that a Somebody Else's Problem (SEP) "is something that we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think it's somebody else's problem." This is a very powerful concept. Another character in the book, Startibartfast, uses an SEP field to cloak his spaceship from prying eyes. I think it's really very clever, and quite technologically advanced, of us to use an SEP to deal with our electronic garbage.

A lot of the garbage-banning regulations imposed by U.S. and Canadian states and provinces include fees to pay for recycling or require manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling. Oh, by the way, those regulations say nothing about where that recycling is to take place. And, because the regulations are enabled by state and provincial bills, they generally can't legally restrict foreign trade, which is a federal matter in both of our countries. As a result, a lot of that "recycling" is done in third-world countries where it's more economical to accept payment in return for taking the stuff off our hands and then throw it in a dump rather than recycle it. That certainly looks like an SEP to me. Oh, and by the way, regarding all of those computers and monitors going to Nigeria, according to the report, Nigeria has virtually no capacity for materials recovery operations. Knowing that, you've really got to wonder how much of the garbage is actually going to get recycled given that 75% of it is composed of unusable, irreparable computers and monitors, don't you?

What's the thought process at work here? I suspect it goes something like this: "Hell, most of the countries we're sending our electronic refuse to are dirt poor. Many of their citizens are going to die of starvation during the next drought anyway. That can be a slow and painful death. If we poison their well-water through the leaching of toxins, we're actually doing them a favor by putting them out of their misery much sooner." Well, aren't we just the kind and generous souls?

How did we create such a huge mountain of electronic garbage in the first place? That's an easy question to answer. Around the world, millions of people are feverishly working away to design, build, and sell an endless stream of new gizmos and gadgets that will be marketed in such a way as to convince us that all of the electronic crap that we already own is thoroughly obsolete. (It's funny that we never, not even for even an instant, thought that these things were obsolete while we were wasting our time foolishly believing that we were making really good use of them.) Unfortunately, only a very small fraction of that number of people are putting any time into trying to figure out what to do with all of the junk that we consequently throw away.

I know what you're saying at this point, "Oh sure, Joel just loves to rant, rage, and adopt a holier-than-thou stance, but does he have a solution?" I'm glad you asked. Yes, I do.

My condo includes a storage room right in the unit. Its size and shape make it unsuitable for anything but storage, but perfect for that purpose. Whenever I replace a computer or other electronic gadget, I put its predecessor, which I'm never going to use again, into the storage room.

Here's my plan. When the room fills up, I'm going to remove the door frame, fill in the doorway with drywall, and paint over it so no one will know it was ever there. Then I'll sell my condo. Presto, it's somebody else's problem. See the awesome power of that concept? Of course, because my condo's circuit breaker box is in the storage room, the new owners will have a problem if they ever blow a fuse, but I'll be long gone by then. As I said, it will be somebody else's problem. Don't you wish you were clever enough to think of a plan like that?

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. He is also the author of BYTE-ing Satire, a compilation of a year's worth of his columns. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. If anyone is interested in a fried, irreparable, 30-year-old clone of an Apple II computer, please contact him before he seals his storage room.

Joel Klebanoff

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, writer, and formerly president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto-based marketing communications firm. He has 30 years' experience in various IT capacities and now specializes in writing articles, white papers, and case studies for IT vendors and publications across North America. Joel is also the author of BYTE-ing Satire, a compilation of a year's worth of his columns. He holds a BS in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto.


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