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How Do Computer Monitors Affect the Environment?

By Catalina Logan ; Updated June 13, 2017

If you have a traditional personal computer, or PC, you probably don’t know what materials make the monitor work. However, just as consumers are increasingly aware of ingredients in processed foods and making decisions based on this information, computer owners and buyers are doing the same. They are now learning more about what’s behind their computer screen and how it can affect the environment in the immediate and long term.

Effects of Improper Monitor Disposal

According to the EPA, up to 8 lbs. of lead may be contained in your computer monitor. While this poses little threat to you over the years, if you discard your monitor with regular trash, the lead inside can be released into the ecosystem. This poses a serious threat to human life. The EPA notes that lead can cause health effects ranging from behavioral problems and learning disabilities to seizures to death, and is most harmful for children 6 years old and younger who are still developing. To learn how to properly recycle your monitor, the EPA’s eCycling website details what local programs exist for you to recycle or safely get rid of your computer.

Countries with Weak Policy or Enforcement

In countries such as China, India and Vietnam, scrap recyclers often dismantle computers to extract specific components for reuse and toss the rest. A computer monitor can expose these recyclers and their environment to toxins. A June 2010 investigation by Greenpeace in Ghana's capital found hundreds of workers dismantling and burning computers to sell casing and expose and sell copper wires. Greenpeace scientists noted the risk workers faced from repeated exposure to lead, cadmium and mercury, which can damage the kidneys and the nervous system. Ghanian e-waste experts said containers from wealthy countries arrive improperly marked as secondhand electronics, but in reality were full of useless obsolete electronics. As of 2010, no e-waste laws exist in Ghana.

Unnecessary Energy Consumption

The U.S. Department of Energy recommends turning off your monitor if you’re not going to use your PC again for at least 20 minutes. This will lead to energy savings that help you decrease your overall energy consumption. The Department of Energy also notes that screen savers do not save energy, and in fact may use more energy as well as cause your computer’s “power-down” feature to be deactivated. To ensure your computer monitor uses the minimal amount of energy possible, resist the urge to play that cute slideshow of your kids on an endless loop.

Toxic Electronic Waste Is Abundant and Unregulated

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection notes that as an element of the waste stream, used electronic products, such as computer monitors, are a serious concern because of the high quantity and toxicity of such products. In addition to lead, electronic waste can contain toxic substances including brominated flame retardants, cadmium, lithium, mercury, phosphorous coating and PVC plastics that create toxins when burned. Releasing this cocktail of toxic chemicals can be avoided by doing as Maine has done: creating laws requiring computer manufacturers to ensure that products they sell are recycled when the product no longer functions.

Shortened Monitor Life Cycles

According to 2006 U.S. National Safety Council figures, the average life span of a PC in 2005 was two years--less than half the life span of a PC in 1992. The increased turnover as new models are introduced and consumers perceive their machine is becoming obsolete has lead to an increase in the flow of computer monitors getting the boot. With these greater numbers, unless public awareness shifts, odds are higher that more computer monitors will end up in landfills.

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