Jack Revelle of Pro Quo Books

Jack Revelle has old computers stacked all over the warehouse of his Baltimore-based online firm, Pro Quo Books. (Photo by Donna Griffin, Special to Baltimoresun.com / July 12, 2004)

Jack Revelle doesn't mind his warehouse being cluttered.

As co-owner of Pro Quo Books, a Baltimore online book distributor, he expects some of the more than 150,000 titles he carries will end up not just in their designated bins or shelves, but in the hallway, on the floor -- and even in the company's employee lounge.

What Revelle doesn't like, however, are the useless monitors and aging computer equipment that gather dust alongside them.

"We have six or seven monitors that are sitting in the warehouse," Revelle said. "They're fine to use for some applications, but for other applications, for the applications we bought them for, we can't use them."

Revelle faces a dilemma common to many business owners today: How to safely dispose of old computer equipment.

Although there are no laws prohibiting businesses from simply dumping obsolete machines into landfills or incinerators, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) strongly recommends against this because of the batteries and toxic metals computers contain.

Cathode-ray tubes, in particular, are problematic. Each tube, used in computer monitors, typically houses three to six pounds of lead.

"Electronic equipment contains heavy metals that can be toxic if ingested," said Hilary Miller, who oversees the department's Recycling, Marketing and Operations program. "They contain cadmium, lead and mercury, which can be hazardous to human health and the environment if not properly managed."

Miller added that such equipment also consumes a great deal of space and that landfills are not always equipped to handle them.

"Current landfills today are pretty well-regulated by the state and federal government, and they have liner-systems and leachate-collection systems," she said. "Theoretically, if they are properly managed and installed, [these systems] collect any hazardous waste generated in the decomposition process.

"However, even with new landfill construction and close regulation, over time, landfills can still leak," Miller said. "It's possible that the metals can leach out of the landfill and get into groundwater."

A serious problem

The problem of electronic waste continues to grow rapidly in Maryland. MDE estimates that residents will discard approximately 42,714 tons of electronics this year -- only a small portion of which Miller said ultimately will be recaptured.

"We believe that we are probably capturing, through our current electronics-collection activities, a very small portion of the electronics that are generated for disposal," she said.

Nationally, the problem is just as critical.

Miller noted a 1999 study by the National Safety Council, which projected that 63 million personal computers would be retired by 2003 -- "up for disposal or stored in somebody's basement or garage."

A report released earlier this year by the Computer Take Back Campaign, based in San Jose, Calif., and Californians Against Waste, with headquarters in Sacramento, estimated that by 2006, 59.6 million computers and televisions would be designated for disposal -- increasing to 99.3 million such machines by 2015.

But the problem is escalating because of increased technology, said Wayne Naylor of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington.

"It is a problem that is growing because the number of computers keeps growing," said Naylor, chief of the agency's technical support branch for the D.C. region. "With technology changing rapidly, every three or four years, it gets turned over very quickly and ends up in the waste stream."