Salvaging The Surplus

Is there a happy ending for the millions of obsolete computers governments can no longer use? Recyclers think so.

by / July 17, 2001
Ever since Intel executive Gordon Moore predicted in 1965 that microchip capacity would double every 18 months, little has been said about the impact such churning of information technology would have on our waste stream.

Computer users who keep demanding faster technology have discovered the landscape is littered with used computers. Worse, they now realize that its not that easy to get rid of these boxes composed of metal, plastic and glass.

In 1998, approximately 20.6 million personal computers became obsolete in the United States. Of that number, only 11 percent -- about 2.3 million units -- were recycled, according to the National Safety Councils Environmental Health Center. This year, the number of disused computers is expected to reach 42 million. That number is predicted to grow to 61.3 million by 2007. And the computers keep piling up, with 133 million PCs sold last year, according to Gartner Research.

In Massachusetts, which has closed more than 100 landfills in the past 10 years, the dumping of obsolete computers is a major concern. In 1998, more than 75,000 tons of old electronic equipment ended up in the states remaining landfills. That number is expected to reach 320,000 tons by 2005, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. To stem the worst problem -- the dumping of cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which contain as much as eight pounds of lead and other hazardous materials -- the state banned the disposal of CRTs in landfills and incinerators.

But few other states have taken such drastic measures. Meanwhile, the tide of obsolete computers continues to rise. Interestingly, the number of computers being dumped in landfills around the country could be a lot higher. Many individuals and businesses feel guilty about throwing the hardware away.

"We surveyed residents about the PCs they no longer use and found that most of the obsolete equipment is being stored," said Lisa Sepanski, project manager of the Computer Recovery Project, run by King County, Wash.

Emerging Gray Market

The urge not to toss old computers has created a gray market for used computers. Recycling firms have sprung up around the country to handle the growing pile of surplus and used technology. There are approximately 400 companies in the United States that have computer and electronics recycling operations, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers. Some are in the reselling business, others recover parts or materials. What cant be saved ends up in the hands of smelters and refiners. And then there are those organizations that take donations and resell or give the computers away. Schools and charities long have been recipients of donated equipment, although they have become more selective about the equipment they accept.

But thanks to the Internet, donating a working computer has become a bit easier. In February, the Electronic Industries Alliance, a partnership of electronic and high-tech associations, launched a Web site that connects users who want to donate used computers with local charities, needy schools, neighborhoods and community demanufacturers. A similar organization, Share the Technology, provides a national computer donation database on the Internet that lists donation requests and offers across the country.

For businesses, organizations and governments with large numbers of obsolete or broken computers, the answer may be found with one of the numerous recyclers around the country. One such company, Waste Management & Recycling, located near Albany, N.Y., recovers, recycles and refurbishes computers that it receives from businesses replacing outmoded computers. Hospitals, schools, universities and local and state governments contract with Waste Management to take their old computers and recycle them, according to Peter Bennison, vice president of business development at Waste Management.

At the other end of the scale, PC manufacturers, such as IBM, Compaq, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, have entered the computer recycling and refurbishing business, as well. Last year, IBM recycled 500,000 computers, making it the largest PC recycler in the country. In the next few years, the firm expects to recycle as many as one million computers a year. In 1997, HP opened a recycling facility that shreds and separates up to 4 million pounds per month of broken or obsolete HP computer equipment, including everything from laptops and desktops to servers, printers and monitors.

Governments Role

As a major consumer of computers, state and local governments have a significant impact on what happens to obsolete and broken electronic equipment. A few governments leave the decision up to individual agencies and departments. Some sign contracts with recyclers to haul the stuff away. Others try to donate the PCs or they end up storing them.

Massachusetts is trying to encourage recycling to start at the moment an agency decides to buy new computers. "In our procurement solicitations, we give extra evaluation to companies that have recycling programs built into the sale of the computer," said Dick Mordaunt, director of IT and office procurement for the states Operational Services Division. State purchasing agents will give extra points during the bid evaluation process to firms that build computers that are easy to recycle or made from recycled material, or that will take back the computers after a certain period.

State and local governments also must play the role of facilitator when it comes to computer recycling. Theres no better example than King County, Wash., where Microsoft and other software vendors coexist beside some of the most eco-friendly people in the country. Last year, the county launched the Computer Recovery Project, a multi-faceted effort to help individuals and businesses in the region recycle old computers.

The project is part education and awareness, part business, according to project director Sepanski. "We decided to start by educating the public about the amount of waste in color monitors," she said.

The $175,000 program ran ads on radio and drummed up publicity about the hazards of dumping old monitors. At the same time, the project contracted with a local firm, Total Reclaim, to take back old monitors. Individuals and businesses pay $10 to Total Reclaim, which disassembles the monitors and recycles the glass from the CRTs, along with plastic casings and circuit boards. Since July 2000, more than 6,000 monitors and thousands of other computer components have been collected for reuse and recycling. Total Reclaim will eventually recycle nearly 95 percent of the 75 tons of computer equipment it recovers.

The biggest hurdle has been understanding all the government regulations dealing with recycling and disposal of used computers, explained Sepanski. But the state has become more active in streamlining regulations that affect computer recycling. Another problem has been the public attitude that its the job of government to pick up and take away everybodys obsolete computers.

"Its a real challenge getting people out of this frame of thinking," said Sepanski. "They have to realize a computer is a unique commodity. Its going to take public/private cooperation to deal with this problem."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor