SAN JOSE — U.S. technology companies lag foreign rivals in reducing hazardous materials in electronic devices, exposing gadget-hungry Americans to toxins whenever they use computers, according to a new report.
Computer TakeBack Campaign assigned poor or failing grades to Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology and Gateway in its third annual report card.
The study, published online recently from research by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, charged American companies have been slow to reduce "e-waste," including lead, polyvinyl chloride and other hazardous materials used to manufacture computers.
CTC blasted Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Computer for failing to send company representatives to shareholder meetings involving toxic materials policy. It also attacked the nation's top-selling computer manufacturer for dealing with a U.S. government contractor, UNICOR, which employs prison inmates to recycle outdated computers.
According to the CTC, "high-tech chain gangs" are not guaranteed the safety protections needed to ensure protection against e-waste.
"The Dell position on e-waste is a stain on the soul of Dell — the company and its founder," the report stated. "Michael Dell and his wife, Susan, make generous donations to children's health and environmental charities in the U.S., but ignore the health and environmental impacts of e-waste on children and adults."
Activists mocked Dell's use of inmate labor at a protest last week in Las Vegas, where company executives gathered for the Consumer Electronics Show.
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Dell spokesperson Michele Glaze defended the contract with UNICOR. Dozens of companies hire UNICOR to get federal inmates to recycle electronics, wash laundry, make toner cartridges, stamp metal and perform dozens of other jobs for government agencies and private companies.
Glaze said the lower wage earned by federal inmates allows Dell to recycle computers at a fraction of the cost it would require using a private recycling program. Owners of obsolete Dell machines pay shipping costs to return their computers but do not have to pay any additional cost associated with recycling in the DellExchange program.
"We are as concerned about this issue as the Computer TakeBack Campaign is," Glaze said. "We don't want people to throw away their computers. We don't want computers in landfills."
Dell's failing grade mirrors lax environmental standards throughout the country, according to the CTC. Even the highest-ranking American company in the study, IBM, "disappointed" CTC scorers for shipping to American consumers computers containing brominated flame retardants, used to prevent fires in circuit boards. In countries that prohibit the suspected endocrine disrupters, IBM ships BFR-free machines.
The report praised the European Union, which in October adopted directives that put the burden of recycling on the manufacturer. Japan, home of CTC's highest-ranking electronics manufacturers, Fujitsu and Cannon, passed a law in 2001 requiring electronic manufacturers to recycle certain parts. Japan requires disclosure of chemical use in production plants.
Within the next five years, up to 680 million computers will become obsolete in the United States, producing more than 4 billion pounds of plastic, 1 billion pounds of lead and millions of pounds of other waste products, according to the National Safety Council. According to the CTC report, less than 10 percent of outdated computer products will be refurbished or recycled.