Garbage In, Garbage Out

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

--Gretel H. Schueller


Darwin's Birdbrains

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."

--Ryan George

Arctic Starting Line

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.

--Ryan George


© 2002  NASI

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Do Potter Fans Give a Hoot?

In 1996 the re-release of the movie 101 Dalmatians led to a run on that breed of dog, although, unfortunately, many of these high-strung pooches ended up in the pound. So it's no surprise that this winter's smash Harry Potter movie would set off a similar frenzy for real-live snowy owls like the one that played Hedwig, one of Harry's costars. In the United States, wildlife laws make acquiring birds of prey next to impossible; in England, however, captive-bred owls can be purchased at pet stores, so during the Christmas holidays, many parents rushed out to buy them for their children. British biologists moved quickly to discourage the fad, informing the public that snowy owls don't make great pets. In addition to their daggerlike talons, they pointed out, the average domesticated snowy owl enjoys a long life and has a voracious appetite for rodents. "Few people are willing to keep rats in the freezer next to the Christmas turkey," says Jenny Thurston, a trustee of the World Owl Trust, which has launched a campaign against owl mania. Meanwhile, in the United States, the popularity of Harry Potter has inspired fans to seek out nocturnal raptors in more natural habitats. "A lot of people have been calling to ask where to go to see owls," says Patricia Pelkowski, research director at the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center in Oyster Bay, New York, which has compiled a list of the area's prime owl-spotting sites. "This way children get to see wild owls up close."

--Shervin Hess

Salmon Sleuthing

Last winter officers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada raided a suburban Vancouver restaurant and seized 750 pounds of contraband salmon. A tip led them to the stash, but it was DNA fingerprinting that earned the officers a conviction. Since 1990 Fisheries and Oceans scientists have collected genetic information from sockeye, coho, and Chinook salmon to monitor the health of the species' populations. Now the database--it contains 20,000 DNA samples of each species--has become an increasingly popular law-enforcement tool that can determine when and where a fish was caught. In the Vancouver case, DNA testing showed that the seized salmon were taken from Vancouver's Fraser River in 1999, when it was temporarily closed to fishing. Last May the owners of La Baia restaurant pleaded guilty to buying fish not caught under the authority of a commercial fishing license and were fined about $5,000.

--Lauren Morello