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Not In Our Backyard: Computer Waste And Engineering Ethics

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Engineering and Sustainability

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1111.1 - 12.1111.14



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Paper Authors


Marilyn Dyrud Oregon Institute of Technology

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Marilyn Dyrud is a full professor in the Communication Department at Oregon Institute of Technology and regularly teaches courses in business and technical writing, rhetoric, public speaking, and ethics. She has been active in ASEE for over 20 years, serving as OIT's campus rep, ETD section rep, compiler of the annual engineering technology education bibligraphy, and is immediate past chair of the Pacific Northwest Section. In addition to ASSEE, she is active in the Association for Business Communication, where she chairs the Teaching Committee, edits a pedagogical column for one of the association's journals, and sits on the editorial boards for two journals, and the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Not in Our Backyard: Computer Waste and Engineering Ethics


The electronic gadgetry boom spawned by the development of personal computers in the 1970s has a decidedly dark side emerging in the 21st century: electronic waste, or e-waste, is accumulating by the millions of tons due to ineffectual recycling programs and lack of an enforced international policy governing the disposal of outmoded or unwanted electronic devices. It is, according to The Wall Street Journal, “the world’s fastest growing and potentially most dangerous waste problem.”1

E-waste consists of discarded electronics, primarily smaller consumer products: cell phones, digital cameras, GPS units, fax machines, MP3 players, gaming consoles and players, television sets, DVD/VHS players, stereos, PDAs, PCs and peripherals. This paper, however, focuses only on computer waste, explaining potential health hazards, the scope of the problem, international legislation, ethical issues involved, and classroom activities.

The problem is huge and growing. In the US, for example, individuals, businesses, and governmental/non-governmental agencies discard about 136,000 PCs daily–2more than 10,000 a week from the federal government alone–3 totaling some 250 million units annually.1 While some are technologically obsolete, most are not. They are, however, psychologically obsolete, as the life of a PC has deceased from five years in 1997 to two currently.4 About 70% of old PCs languish in basements and attics, collecting dust;5 some 60 million lie in municipal landfills.1 Less than 10% are recycled,6 and, of those, most are destined for disassembly in third world countries. In fact, about 80% of “recycling” efforts in the US consist of exporting e-waste abroad.7 Exporting old PCs has resulted in environmental degradation and public health risks in the recipient countries.

Health Hazards

A computer sitting on a desk poses no health risk. However, a computer hacked apart via hammer and chisel exposes toxic elements that result in human and environmental damage. Computers are considered hazardous waste because they contain 34 distinct toxic substances,8 some, like antimony and beryllium, in small quantities, and others, like lead and plastics, in abundance. The following discusses the major toxins, and Table 1 summarizes the effects and total estimated weight of toxins in the 315 million computers deemed obsolete between 1997 and 2004.


Lead is the second most abundant element in computers, with the average monitor containing 3-8 pounds. It is mostly concentrated in the CRT glass panel, but the solder in circuit boards is also lead-based. Discarded electronics account for about 40% of lead in US landfills.3

Dyrud, M. (2007, June), Not In Our Backyard: Computer Waste And Engineering Ethics Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--1564

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