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Articles Contributed by Scripps Howard News Service Reporter Joan Lowy

"Bioinvasion Threatens America's Maples"
"PC Power Requirements Create Huge Electrical Demand"
"Out with the Old, In with the New--Where do Old PCs Go?"









Scripps Howard News Service

When environmentalists start demanding the clear-cutting of hardwood trees, you know something's up.

And yet that is exactly what some environmentalists are warning must happen if the United States is to avoid a catastrophe that could make the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Love Canal and other environmental calamities seem insignificant.

The problem is the Asian long-horned beetle, a voracious critter that eats a wide variety of leafy trees _ maples are its favorite _ from the inside out. It can't be controlled with pesticides and has no natural predators in the United States, where it is thought to have arrived some years ago inside wood packing crates from China.

To make matters worse, the beetle is only the latest example of an even larger and more ominous problem.

Global trade is bringing an unprecedented variety of invasive species from around the world to U.S. shores, dislodging native species, disrupting local ecosystems and causing widespread economic damage.

So far, thousands of trees have been cut down in suburban Chicago, New York City and Long Island to prevent the beetle's spread. But officials have been cutting primarily trees infested with the beetle. Some environmentalists recommend clear-cutting all hardwood trees within a radius of a mile or two of wherever the pest is found.

That means cutting down trees not just in some remote forest, but in back yards and in city parks. It means denuding entire neighborhoods, perhaps even communities.

"I think the situation is dire,'' said Faith Campbell, an expert on invasive species with the American Lands Alliance. "I'm not saying anybody's happy about this, but a lot more people are going to be a lot more unhappy'' unless drastic action is taken while it may still be possible to prevent the beetle's spread.

The beetle, which has been detected mostly in ports in 14 states, is probably already in communities where it has yet to be discovered. Eventually it could eat its way through the 42 million acres of forests from Maine to Minnesota that are dominated by maple trees, forever changing the nation's landscape, scientists warn. Indeed, all U.S. forests except those dominated primarily by pine and fir trees would be at risk.

It won't happen tomorrow, but it undoubtedly will happen if the beetle isn't contained, Campbell said.

The Sierra Club is hosting "the last maple syrup'' pancake breakfasts around the country to draw attention to the problem.

Since the first human lofted a sail and set out to sea, man has been ferrying species to new lands. But scientists say the pace of global trade _ up 50 percent since 1990 _ has created an unprecedented bioinvasion. Probably at no other time in history have organisms been passed around the world at the rate they are now.

Sometimes foreign species are released into U.S. harbors with ballast water taken on by freighters in their native waters. Sometimes they come in, as the long-horned beetle did, in packing crates or raw materials. Foreign ticks have come in on lizards imported as pets. A number of troublesome plants were first brought in as landscaping materials.

Many foreign species find their new homes inhospitable and die _ but others thrive, finding plenty of food and no natural predators.

Cornell University scientists reported in January that 30,000 non-native species cost the U.S. economy $123 billion a year. New York City alone has spent more than $100 million since 1990 fighting foreign shipworms that undermine docks and other wooden structures. Foreign pests cost the forestry industry $4 billion a year.

Leafy spurge, a plant native to Europe that chokes out local grasses and emits a milky juice poisonous to cattle, is spreading throughout the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West, causing an estimated $144 million a year in livestock damage.

The fast-producing zebra mussel from the Black Sea causes an estimated $3 billion a year in damage in the Great Lakes region primarily because of its ability to thrive inside pipes, including water and power facilities. The mussels have migrated as far west as Oklahoma and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

The European green crab, which decimated Maine's soft-shell clam industry earlier in this century, has more recently made its way to the West Coast, where it is threatening to displace native shellfish from Northern California to Washington state.

And the list goes on:

_ In San Francisco Bay, more than 230 exotic species have been identified, causing extensive property damage and disrupting food supplies for native species. Biologists call the bay the most invaded estuary in the world.

_ Florida has been overrun by so many foreign plants and pests that environmentalists call it the "poster child'' of the invasive-species debate. Problems include Old World ferns brought in as house plants that are now squeezing the life from cypress trees. Eight new species of ticks from Africa, Asia and Latin America have made the state their home in the last two years, including disease-carrying ticks that can devastate cattle herds.

Scientists have identified a toxic blue-green algae from Australia as a likely cause of wildlife deaths in Florida's Lake Griffin. Hundreds of birds, alligators, fish and turtles have been found dead.

_ In New Orleans, the Formosan termite has caused more property damage in the last 10 years than hurricanes, tornadoes and floods combined.

_ In Colorado, dozens of foreign weeds have overrun more than 1 million acres. Wheat farmers lose tens of millions of dollars annually because of just three non-native weeds.

_ At the Snake River Birds of Prey Preserve in Idaho, highly flammable cheat grass has been crowding out native grasses and plants that provide food and cover for rodents. The rodent population has plummeted, resulting in declines in eagles, peregrine falcons, hawks and other raptors that feed on them.

_ In the Chesapeake Bay region, a giant Asian snail is depleting oyster beds. In nearby marshes, the nutria, a 20-pound South American rodent with orange buck teeth, is chewing up native grasses, displacing ducks and muskrats.

The danger, however, is not all one way. North American crayfish are wiping out their European cousins. The comb jellyfish, brought by freighters from New England to the Baltic states, is devastating the Black Sea. A microscopic worm native to the southeastern United States is decimating pine trees in Japan.

"Not only are we likely to impoverish our own biological richness at some cost to our forests and communities, but we are likely to see the impoverishment of natural systems worldwide, gradually reducing ecosystems around the world to a narrow, diminished set of the most competitive species,'' said Daniel Seligman, who handles international trade issues for the Sierra Club.

After 500 scientists sent a letter to Vice President Gore last year, the Clinton administration stepped up its response to the problem. In February, President Clinton signed an executive order creating a special Invasive Species Council co-chaired by three Cabinet secretaries in an effort to coordinate the dozens of federal agencies that deal with a piece of the problem.

The council, which held its first meeting last week, has until September 2000 to come up with a comprehensive plan for mitigating the damage from invasive species. Clinton has also asked Congress for $28.8 million next year to fight invasive species.

And this month, federal authorities began asking cargo ships to exchange their ballast water at least 200 miles from U.S. ports. The U.S. Coast Guard is conducting random inspections to gauge compliance, but the program is voluntary. Critics say it is not enough.

Last December, the Department of Agriculture began requiring that all solid wood packaging materials from China be treated for pests prior to arrival in the United States. That prompted a complaint from the Chinese government of unfair trade practices.

Some states are also taking action. In New Hampshire, state government, environmental and agricultural officials met recently to devise a strategy for attacking invasive plants. Maine has created its own Invasive Species Council. More than 30 states sent representatives to Chicago last year to gather information from Illinois agricultural officials on the long-horned beetle.

But what environmentalists want is for the administration to press for a rewriting of international trade rules when the World Trade Organization meets in Seattle in November.

Right now, countries must identify in advance foreign species that may be dangerous before they can impose trade restrictions such as limits on packing materials. The problem is, scientists say, that with 30 million species in the world, including 10 million kinds of insects, its impossible to know in advance all the ones that are going to be trouble until they are already here and causing damage.

Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, one of the Invasive Species Council co-chairs, said the administration has no plans at the moment to raise the issue with the WTO. But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, another co-chair, said he favors bringing it up both in international trade talks and with the international Convention on Biological Diversity.

"This multilateral stuff has to start. The question is where,'' Babbitt said in an interview. "My own feeling is that it is a sufficiently urgent subject that it should be taken up in both places. But we should recognize that most countries of the world feel more comfortable dealing with it in the biodiversity convention as a science problem rather than immediately jumping into the trade arena.''

The United States, however, has never ratified the biological diversity convention treaty, which has been blocked in the Senate by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

"Even if the convention on biodiversity were to adopt some protocol on how to deal with this and all the countries were to ratify it, then there would still have to be a fight between that treaty and the World Trade Organization as to who has jurisdiction here,'' Campbell said.

Environmentalists are hoping that the emotional impact of seeing trees cut down in their neighborhoods will stir public demand for action. One minister in suburban Chicago held a funeral service for parishioners grief-stricken over the loss of their trees.

"This is a backyard issue,'' Seligman said. "The potential for bringing people together for environmental protection around this issue is enormous.''

(Joan Lowy is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service.)
© 1999 Scripps Howard News Service.

All Rights Reserved.

Scripps Howard News Service

Computers and the Internet were supposed to be energy-friendly technology, but some experts are beginning to question just how friendly.

There's no denying that the Internet allows millions of people around the world to communicate easily and cheaply without leaving home or office. And that saves energy _ from commuter trips in the car to business flights across the ocean, not to mention package express.

But computers, along with the powerful servers, packet routers and other equipment that keep home, corporate and global networks functioning also consume electricity. And the spectacular rate of growth in computer networks will demand more and more electric power, according to experts Mark Mills, a physicist and forecaster of electronic technology, and Peter Huber, an attorney and the author of books on science and technology.

Indeed, it's already happening, say Mills and Huber. While demand in other energy sectors is stable or decreasing, U.S. electricity demand is growing 3 percent a year and more than half of that increase is due the rise of the computer microprocessor, they contend.

The estimated 100 million computers and computer-related equipment already connected to the Internet worldwide, each drawing from hundreds to thousands of kilowatt-hours per year, add up to 290 billion kilowatts of demand, Mills and Huber estimate.

That's equal to about 8 percent of current U.S. demand. If you add in all the computers and appliances containing computer chips that are not connected to the Internet, the world electric demand from information technology is equal to about 13 percent of current U.S. demand, Mills and Huber figure.

Others have made similar estimates. Steven Anzovin, author of The Green PC, calculated that personal computers devoured 330 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 1997, "enough to keep California's 11 million households running for more than three years.''

But consider that Intel, the world's largest chip maker, is estimating that by 2005 there will be 1 billion computers and computer-related pieces of equipment connected to the Internet. That would represent a demand for electricity equal to the total electricity supply capacity of the United States today, which consumes more electricity than any other nation.

"This should be obvious,'' Mills said. "You are making millions and millions of pieces of equipment that make the Internet possible and every one of them runs on only one power source, electricity. Every one of them has to be plugged into the wall. Not a single one of them runs on cow dung from India."

When Mills and Huber laid out their estimates in a recent issue of Forbes magazine, the numbers sent shivers through both the information technology industry and the environmental community.

"I'm still reeling from that one,'' said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which tracks environmental problems generated by the computer industry. "Where is that energy going to come from?''

Mills and Huber have the answer: Dig more coal.

Most electricity in the United States, 56 percent, is generated with coal. Nuclear plants account for 20 percent, and hydro dams and natural gas each generate 10 percent.

Not everyone agrees. David Isaacs, head of environmental programs for the Electronic Industries Alliance, which represents most computer makers as well as other electronic product manufacturers, said Mills and Huber fail to account both for energy savings caused by Internet use and the increasing advances in energy efficiency made by computer and computer-related equipment.

Today's computers are far more powerful while often using the same or less energy than previous generators of computers.

But Mills and Huber aren't alone in questioning the environmental impact of the computer revolution.

Information technology is reducing the environmental impact of a wide range of products on a "per unit basis _ per mile traveled, per person, per dollar spent, however you want to measure,'' said Reid Lifset of Yale University, editor of The Journal of Industrial Ecology.

But, Lifset said, "it is a matter of open debate in the technical community whether the increases in efficiency will make up for the increases in population and the increases in usage. There are people on both sides.''

(Joan Lowy is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail lowyj(at)
© 1999 Scripps Howard News Service.

All Rights Reserved.

Scripps Howard News Service

The world is rapidly becoming awash in computer junk that no one knows what to do with, and the problem is only expected to get worse.

Computers become obsolete in 18 months or less. U.S. manufacturers are selling 36.7 million new computers a year, about 80 percent of them for domestic consumption.

As a result, old computers, printers and related equipment are as ubiquitous at yard sales as chipped teapots and Beanie Babies, only less valuable.

The problem may increase significantly next year if, as some industry and environmental experts predict, millions of computer owners decide it's cheaper to buy a new personal computer rather than try to make their old one Y2K compliant.

A new study by the National Safety Council estimates 20.6 million PCs became obsolete in 1998 in the United States alone, but only 11 percent _ about 2.3 million units _ were recycled. Another 1.3 million old pieces of computer equipment were refurbished, mostly by charities.

"I think people are just learning how extreme this problem may become if we don't learn how to manage it," said Dawn Amore, author of the report.

So where are all these old PCs, laptops, printers and other computer-related equipment going? No one knows for sure, but the indications are that most are gathering dust in closets, attics and garages because their owners don't know what to do with them.

A survey by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection of computer owners in that state found 40 percent had a PC stop working in the past year and 33 percent of them had simply put the machine in storage. Only 1 percent put the computer out with the trash.

"This is not a soda bottle you just emptied," said Patty Dillon, a research associate at Tufts University and an expert on electronics industry product design and recycling. "This is a piece of computer equipment that most likely you paid over $2,000 for a few years ago. Your belief is that this thing sitting on your desk has to have value."

The reality, said Dillon, is that most old computers "have a net negative value."

Not only is there no market for selling them, it's getting increasingly difficult to give them away. Few people want a computer slower than a 486 model because it won't run up-to-date software and isn't capable of surfing the Internet.

"Who gets rid of a 486? Typically what you see coming out of houses now are 386s, 286s or worse," Dillon said.

Leah Jung, a Denver consultant who advises corporations on how to handle high-tech waste, said she got a rude awakening when she suggested during an interview with a radio network that consumers donate their old computer equipment to charities that ship it to impoverished communities overseas.

"I got slammed with e-mail from Third World countries," Jung said. "Basically the message was, 'Don't make us a dumping ground for your old equipment.' "

One message from Africa did request information on how to obtain equipment, but the sender didn't want anything less powerful than a 486.

"Four months from now they'll probably only want Pentiums because the technology changes so fast," Jung said.

Common sense says that eventually people will clean out their closets and their computer junk will hit the waste stream. That has environmentalists worried because computers contain lots of hazardous materials and are not easily recyclable.

More than 700 chemicals are used to manufacture a PC, about half of them toxic. For example, plastic computer casings are coated with toxic fire retardant. A computer monitor contains roughly 2-1/2 pounds of lead, most of it in the glass. If thrown into a landfill, the lead might not necessarily leach into the soil. But many communities rely on incineration rather than landfills. Incinerating computer remains can release dioxin and heavy metals into the atmosphere, contributing to acid rain.

"When you add together the growth rate of the waste stream and the toxicity problem, it's a pretty serious matter," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which focuses on environmental problems associated with the computer industry. "And then there's also the problem of a lack of infrastructure to deal with it."

Most recycled computers come from large companies that contract with manufacturers to haul away their old equipment when they purchase new equipment.

In the Boston area, there are 13 computer recycling firms that will haul away old computers, but it's all commercial business. A state survey found none of the firms had ever picked up a computer from a household.

As a general rule, computers retired by big companies are more likely to be newer and more valuable than those retired by small businesses and homeowners.

In Denver, Technology Recycling Consultants charges $100 to recycle a personal computer (monitor, CPU and keyboard) and won't haul away any less than five computers at a time, which restricts their pickup service primarily to larger businesses. Ordinary consumers can bring their old computer to a drop-off center and pay the $100, but there's a limit of three computers per household.

Still, computer recycling is a growing industry.

"I think that the more people become aware that there are options other than a landfill, the more they will use a recycler, even if it costs them a few dollars to do it," said Peter Muscanelli, president of the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, founded last year.

However, taking a computer to a recycler doesn't necessarily solve the waste problem. Increasingly, the remains of used computers in the United States that are retrieved by manufacturers or taken to recyclers are ultimately finding their way to China, Smith said.

"If you ship it to China, because the wage rates are so low, they can make it economical to do a final round of disassembly and recovery," Smith said. "Also, environmental laws are so lax, you can burn stuff there that it is not OK to burn here."

Entrepreneurs are coming up with new innovations that can help. For example, Conigliaro Industries Inc. of Framingham, Mass., has developed a process that breaks down old computer housings and uses the plastic pellets as pothole filler. GreenDisk of Redmond, Wash., wipes used, high-quality computer diskettes clean of information and then labels and repackages the disks for sale. The company recycled 30 million disks last year.

Millions of used plastic disks also are gathering dust in desk drawers and closets because companies and consumers are concerned that throwing them away is not only environmentally unsound but could result in the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information.

Computer hard drives present a similar problem. Killing a file doesn't always mean it isn't retrievable. For example, there was a commotion in Lincolnshire, England, recently when used PCs from a government agency appeared on the second-hand market still holding details of local child abuse cases.

Another problem down the road is an estimated 250 million television sets that will become obsolete at the end of 2005 when broadcasters switch from analog to digital transmissions for new, high-definition TV sets (HDTV). Like computer monitors, TV sets are not easily recyclable and have cathode ray tubes with significant amounts of lead.

Eyeing both the computer and television problems, Massachusetts recently became the first state to impose a ban on the disposal of cathode ray tubes. South Carolina is considering a $5 tax on the tubes, with the proceeds going to a l trust fund to deal with the problem.

David Isaacs, director of environmental affairs for the Electronic Industries Alliance, which includes most computer and computer-related equipment makers, acknowledged that computer trash is growing but insisted that "it is still relatively small in the scheme of things. It's not like there is any kind of emergency."

The industry has been responding to the problem primarily by trying to design new computers so that they are more easily taken apart for recycling, Isaacs said. Most major manufacturers have made adjustments in their products.

IBM announced in March that it will start shipping a new line of personal computers in which the plastic in the central processing unit is 100 percent recycled.

The industry is also studying ways to reduce use of toxic materials, but in some instances there may be "no technically viable substitutes," Isaacs said. For example, the flame retardant used on computer casing is required by law. The lead in computer monitors is to protect users from dangerous radiation.

The European Union has issued a draft directive that would make computer and other major electronic equipment manufacturers responsible for recycling used products. It would ban the use of some materials, including lead.

"The underlying premise," Smith said, "is that if a company such as IBM, Dell, Compaq or Apple is forced to assume this responsibility, it's going to cause them to rethink the way they design their products."

The only alternative, Smith said, is for taxpayers to pick up the cost of disposal.

However, the Clinton administration and U.S. manufacturers are fighting the directive, arguing that it is an illegal trade barrier.

If the directive is adopted, U.S. manufacturers would most likely be forced to adopt the European standards by default because most computer products are made for a global market.

"This is the most dynamic, cutting-edge industry in the world, and we don't think that in the absence of a real compelling case as to why government regulations should be telling us how to design our products that it makes sense in sort of a cavalier fashion to be banning essential materials," Isaacs said. "We think (the directive) could restrict the trade in electronic products around the world and could potentially have a more adverse impact on American manufacturers."

(Joan Lowy is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail lowyj(at)
© 1999 Scripps Howard News Service.

All Rights Reserved.