Room 473-B
State House
Boston, MA 02133
Telephone: (617) 722-2230
District Office
585A Main St.
Winchester, MA 01890
Telephone: (617) 721-7285 or (617) 438-7185

A View from the Hill

CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240


Back in the 1980s, a person who could program a VCR was considered a "rocket scientist." Now, in this fast-paced era of MP3s, CD-Rewritables, and cable modems, anyone who is not conversant with the inner workings of a Pentium Processor is considered "computer illiterate." Indeed, with all of the rapid changes taking place in the computer industry, it is easy to be left behind in the yesteryears of the Apple IIe and 386 Processor.

With incredible advances in computer technology in the past ten years, accompanied by declining prices, more and more Americans are buying personal computers. According to the last official survey taken by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one in three Americans owned a computer. It is quite probable, however, that this percentage has increased significantly since the survey was taken in 1997.

While it is certainly beneficial for families to have a personal computer, there are some unexpected consequences of ownership. One significant problem is what to do with old, obsolete computers once they have completed their tour of duty.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that electronic equipment like computers, monitors, and televisions account for one percent of the annual 209,700,000 tons of solid waste generated in the United States. Although this percentage may seem miniscule, it still amounts to over two million tons of garbage that must be dealt with by federal, state, and local officials. In Massachusetts, electronics waste totals almost 75,000 tons per year and is expected to reach as much as 300,000 tons by the year 2005.

When electronic equipment ends up in the waste stream, the problem of disposal turns into one of public health. Unlike other refuse, electronics, and especially those containing Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs), contain toxic substances that are hazardous to human health. CRTs, which are the primary components of display devices like televisions and computer monitors, contain on average five to eight pounds of lead. If the tube breaks, lead is released into the environment. Once exposed, lead can enter the human body through drinking water, in dust particles, or by direct ingestion (children putting their fingers in their mouth).

Lead builds up in the body over many years and can damage the brain, nerves, kidneys, digestive system, and red blood cells. Even low levels of lead exposure can be hazardous to humans, especially pregnant women, fetuses, and young children under the age of 6. Significant exposure, known as "lead poisoning" in the medical community, can cause severe retardation of physical and mental development to growing children.

Massachusetts officials have long been aware of the risks of lead poisoning, and over the years we have adopted firm measures to reduce the proliferation of lead in the environment. Our efforts have been extremely successful. In just ten years, we have decreased the incidences of lead poisoning in our state by 73%.

To continue this positive trend, state officials took the lead and adopted new provisions last year that banned Cathode Ray Tubes from landfills and incinerators. As part of the new policy, six regional collection centers were established to accept electronic equipment containing CRTs from residents. A new grant program was also created to assist municipalities in local disposal and recycling initiatives (residents of Winchester, Stoneham, and Reading can dispose of CRTs locally).

In addition to the health benefits of the proper handling of CRTs, there are several other advantages of the new program. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the agency responsible for enforcing the new regulations, reports that the Cathode Ray Tube program will divert over 500,000 tons of material from landfills and incinerators over a ten year period. This reduction in the waste stream will reduce the need to develop new landfills and bring the state closer to its 46 percent recycling goal. And by keeping lead products out of incinerators, plant operators will not have to invest in costly scrubbers to remove lead from fly ash.

Disposal, of course, is only one option when deciding what to do with old or broken computer equipment. A computer that is obsolete for one person may be useful to another. Schools, churches, charities, and other organizations are often in need of computer equipment to perform basic functions like word processing and bookkeeping. In many cases, old computers can handle these tasks without a problem. If you cannot donate your computer directly, there are several organizations across the state that will accept equipment, repair it if necessary, and find a "placement" for it.

If your computer system is truly outdated, or beyond any possibility of repair, a final solution (short of disposal) is "demanufacturing" the equipment. Sometimes, demanufacturers will pay for the internal components or precious metals contained within computer parts. For those of us who come from families that hate to throw anything out (you qualify if there are more than 5 unusable batteries in your kitchen drawer), this approach may be the most appropriate.

Regardless of which method one chooses to get rid of the old computer sitting in the basement, any of these alternatives above are preferable to just tossing the thing in the trash. Although many of us would rather not think about it, we must understand that landfills are not bottomless pits and incinerators are not exactly blessings to the environment. When those landfills or incinerators contain toxic substances like lead, our problems are multiplied exponentially. By creating sensible waste disposal policies and strong recycling incentives like the CRT program, we are safeguarding our future while reallocating valuable resources to those who need them. Even IBM's acclaimed supercomputer "Big Blue" couldn't think up that one.

Return to Winchester Government Page