The manufacturing process in the electronics industry is a significant source of toxic materials. Toxic chemicals are used in a number of applications, such as circuit board cleaners, solvents and material components. Regulation, disposal costs and internal corporate policies provide strong incentives to reduce discharges of toxic materials. For example, Intel Corp. paid $2000 to have a ton of toxic waste handled in 1990 (Damian 1991).
The US computer manufacturing industry has gone through a remarkable process of reducing chemical releases (MCC 1993; Perry 1993). The 1987 total emissions of 14.7kMT were reduced by 69 per cent by 1990, to 4.6kMT (MCC 1993). Although the reduction affected some known carcinogens (for example, dichloromethane, 67 per cent reduction) and highly toxic chemicals (for example, hydrogen peroxide, 95 per cent reduction), the use of some other problematic compounds remained large, or even tripled in the period (for example, chromium compounds, another known carcinogen). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the 33/50 program to achieve a faster reduction of target chemicals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and so on. These reductions often require significant manufacturing process changes.
Toxic materials are present in different computer parts as well (mercury switches, plastics and so on). Monitor screens contain lead; they must be sent to a special site for disposal. In 1993 alone, an estimated 7.2 million monitors were scrapped (MCC 1993). Increasing the recyclability of cathode ray tube (CRT) components is desirable, and so is the alternative use of energy-saving and economical flat screen displays. Some plastics contain traces of toxic materials, such as cadmium, lead and chlorine. At least 85 per cent of reclaimed monitors are now recycled, substantially reducing landfill waste (Matthews et al. 1997).
There is a strong trend in the computer industry towards lighter and, in many cases, portable machines. These smaller machines have lower material demand, contain fewer toxic materials (except the batteries) and tend to be energy-efficient. Batteries are of particular concern because of their high toxic content, their relatively short lifetime and their tendency to be mixed with other solid waste. The heavy metal content of batteries is a significant contributor to the toxicity of municipal solid waste incinerators. Unlike the case of car lead acid batteries and recycling systems common in Western Europe, the USA does not have comprehensive systems in place for recycling computer batteries. Some computer manufacturers accept returned batteries for recycling, but the practice is not widespread. Lankey and McMichael (2000) compare the economic, resource and environmental impact for single-use and rechargeable batteries using a method based on Leontief input-output analysis. This work restates the benefits of reduced mass of waste batteries and reduced life cycle emissions from selecting rechargeable batteries over primary batteries whenever possible.
Improved process control and careful selection of materials in the design stage can improve current practice. Dematerialization and substitution of a less toxic material reduces the demand for hazardous chemicals and may save the company money (Damian 1991). If their use is necessary, toxic materials should be concentrated in removable subparts (for example, batteries) to facilitate recycling.
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