It's good to get a Digg hit every once in a while, because I get a chance to gauge public interest in certain topics through the influx of comments. One of the overwhelming responses to "Linux Could Reduce E-Waste" was that the "waste" isn't all that big a deal. Not nearly as important as, for example, the energy wasted by manufacturing and shipping.
Apparently there have been some interesting stories about garbage lately. While many of us were first lectured on the problem of trash from a very young age, some people are seriously questioning whether or not waste, in itself, is a problem at all.
In some respects, I am inclined to agree. Litter, once the original environmental scourge, isn't really a big deal. Sure, it looks bad, but globally, trash is fairly benign. And while landfills are certainly ugly and smelly wastes of good land, commenters point out that a few square miles of land could take care of all of Americas trash for decades.
Leaving out where we'll find a few square miles of ecologically useless land for sale, and how we're going to ship all the garbage to that massive dump, the problems with e-waste have very little to do with where to put the waste.
There are two main problems with e-waste. First, it is largely toxic. Lead, mercury, selenium, cadmium, and arsenic are all very common to computer components. Second, if labor is cheap enough, and regulations lax enough, computer parts can be profitably harvested in developing countries.
The components that do end up in landfills, thus, poison the land and water surrounding the landfill. And the components that don't end up poisoning people in developing countries working for dollars a week.
But the story doesn't end there, every computer discarded is a computer that must be replaced. And the environmental costs of creating a computer are, indeed, more significant than those of disposing of one. So the commenters were correct, preventing waste is of vital importance not just because of where the waste ends up, but because wasted items must be replaced. And creating these machines, it turns out, is an environmentally significant undertaking.