We're drowning in digital detritus. Discarded personal computers are collecting dust in closets; companies have warehouses packed with them. What's more, with the speed of computers doubling about every 18 months, that technological wonder you purchased just a few years ago is now an electronic relic. Meanwhile, the latest models are being gobbled up. In 2001 an estimated 134 million PCs were sold worldwide (about 45 million in the United States), and it won't be long before they'll all need a final resting place.
"The U.S. is facing a huge waste problem [with computers]," says Ted Smith, director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "The amount is growing much faster than the infrastructure to deal with it." In 1999 more than 24 million people replaced their computers, and nearly 90 percent of those aged appliances went straight to the trash heap. By 2005, a Carnegie Mellon University study estimates, at least 150 million PCs will be buried in U.S. landfills. Put another way, that amounts to the rough equivalent of three acres piled 4,000 feet high. And the Environmental Protection Agency reports that by 2004 we'll have more than 315 million obsolete computers. In any amount, the guts of a computer are toxic, and the heavy metals they contain, like cadmium, lead, mercury, and chromium, can leach into soil and water.
Fortunately, as more and more computers become obsolete, high-tech junk dealers have come on the scene and are recycling old systems into raw material for small manufacturers. There are PC companies that will take back retired hardware--but only from their biggest customers. Recently, however, IBM launched a take-back program open to all, no matter what brand of computer they own. People can ship their old computers--via IBM--to Envirocycle, a Pennsylvania-based recycling firm, for $29.99. (To participate in the program, call 888-746-7426 and give this reference number: P/N06P7513.)
"There has been a distinct change toward concern with electronic recycling," notes Scott Matthews, the director of Carnegie Mellon's Green Design Initiative. Still, he says, the first option should be reuse. There are organizations that are happy to find new lives for donated computers. The nonprofit group Share the Technology, for example, will list your unwanted machine on its National Computer Donation Database. For a list of other national and international agencies that facilitate computer donations, visit www.wco.com/~dale/list.html.
--Gretel H. Schueller
For a migrating songbird, knowing when it's approaching the Sahara Desert can mean the difference between life and death. Vast stretches of desert and ocean, which provide no food, are especially dangerous. Although scientists have long known that birds use the light from bright stars to direct their migrations, how fledgling birds--with no migration experience--know when to stop and stock up on food before they reach large natural barriers has remained a mystery.
Now a group of Swedish scientists have determined that thrush nightingales, which migrate more than 12,000 miles annually from Europe and western Asia to southeastern Africa, seem to use the earth's magnetic field as an indicator of when to binge on food before crossing the Sahara. The scientists captured 16 first-year nightingales near Stockholm and placed them in cages, around which they simulated a magnetic field to re-create a migratory journey through Europe to northern Egypt (where large numbers of songbirds congregate and feed before flying across the Sahara). They found that these birds ate significantly more food and gained more weight than the "control" group.
Since these nightingales had never migrated, these findings suggest the birds innately know where they need to stop and eat along their migration, says Thord Fransson, one of the study's researchers and a zoology professor at Stockholm University. "Birds [of the same species] migrate at different times, and if they mistimed a crossing like the Sahara, they'd be dead," he says. "So natural selection would select those birds that have this sense."
Each year millions of birds migrate from Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to wintering grounds on six continents and in all 50 states. Some 180 species have been found in the refuge; 70 of them nest in the narrow coastal plain between the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea--the "1002 area" that's now the subject of a heated debate about oil development. Although all of these species would be adversely affected by development in the refuge, the 12 species on the Audubon Alaska WatchList, including the wandering tattler, the golden eagle, the red-throated loon, and the common eider, are of particular concern. "In the refuge we have a chance to preserve a unique slice of the American Arctic--with its full complement of birdlife," says Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska.
© 2002 NASI
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