Life after death for the nation’s PCs
Millions of Americans own personal computers, and, each year, they spend billions of dollars replacing their systems or adding the latest bells and whistles. What happens to the old equipment? A mere 10 percent is recycled, according to the National Recycling Coalition (NRC), based in Alexandria, Va. Most of the rest is stored by the owners, who are hanging on to the memory of their $2,000 investments, waiting for someone to tell them that there is life in those technological carcasses.
“Folks who have these machines believe there’s some inherent residual value in them,” says William Ferretti, NRC’s executive director. “They are storing old, obsolete computer equipment in hopes that they will be presented with a productive option for handling it.”
Some of them are tired of waiting. In the absence of readily available alternatives, Americans have begun to come out of the closet, carrying dead and decrepit computers and dumping them into the garbage. If that practice continues, local governments face the prospect of landfilling a growing number of computers that, because of lead, mercury and cadmium content, will create environmental liabilities.
“A very small amount of computers is actually going into landfills at this time,” Ferretti notes. “We anticipate, however, that there is a very large wave of computers that are reaching their end of life and could very well be coming into the waste stream. That is putting pressure on [solid waste managers] to come up with programs for disposal and productive reuse.”
The National Safety Council, based in Washington, D.C., estimates that, within six years, 500 million of the nation’s Pcs will become obsolete. That prospect has spawned a growing industry of computer demanufacturers — companies that disassemble the units and reuse, resell or recycle the components. (In addition to lead, mercury and cadmium, Pcs and their peripherals contain steel, gold, copper, silver, aluminum, nickel and plastic.) Additionally, manufacturers — including Sony Electronics, IBM, Gateway Country and Xerox — are implementing programs to assist consumers in recycling used equipment.
As a result, local governments now have a variety of resources for planning computer diversion programs. They are collecting stored equipment from residents; working with local organizations to return working computers to the community; and partnering with or hiring demanufacturers to manage non-working or obsolete equipment.
“We’re really at the ground floor of computer recycling and disposal,” Ferretti says. “But I see a rising capacity to recycle computers. Hopefully, that will draw out those obsolete computers [and ensure that] they don’t end up in landfills.” The following communities represent the leading edge of local government efforts to accomplish that goal.
Cary, N.C. (population: 100,000)
Responding to residents’ requests for an environmentally friendly way to dispose of their old computers, Cary, N.C., launched a project for reuse and recycling last November. The program consists of three main elements:
a network of organizations that accepts working computers from local residents;
curbside pickup of non-working computers; and
a vendor that breaks down the non-working computers and distributes the components for recycling.
Residents who want to dispose of their computers first call the Public Works Department to schedule a pickup. If the computer is in working order, the department gives the caller the names of local organizations that are looking for computer donations, and it encourages the caller to work directly with the organizations to arrange for reuse. “Handling tons and tons of computers is not our goal,” says Mike Bajorek, public works director for Cary. “If we can link a citizen with an organization that’s looking for a computer, we’ll do that.”
While some residents are willing to make the extra call to find a recipient for their computers, others are not. They, along with residents who own ancient or non-working computers, can arrange for curbside pickup of their equipment.
The Public Works Department picks up and stores the computers, then turns them over to Chatham Salvage, based in Bear Creek, N.C. The company charges the town $4 per monitor and accepts all peripherals without fee. (Managing cathode-ray tubes can be costly for demanufacturers; therefore, monitor disposal often comes with a fee.) The company disassembles the units, reuses what it can and recycles the rest.
Prior to implementation of the computer recycling program, Cary residents were leaving unwanted computers on the curbs with their trash; the town collected the equipment and dumped it in the local landfill. That practice has ended, Bajorek says.
In the program’s first three months, Cary collected and diverted 4.2 tons of computer equipment. It spent $674, which covered pickup costs and fees paid to the salvage company. Publicity, which is budgeted separately, was accomplished through television, radio and newspapers.
King County, Wash. (population: 1.6 million)
King County, Wash., implemented its Computer Recovery Project last year. Administered by the county’s Solid Waste Division (SWD), the program is anchored by a network of organizations that reuse, repair or recycle equipment from residents and businesses.
The network is the result of research that began in 1996, when SWD began getting inquiries about disposal of old computers. “I started getting a lot of questions [from businesses], so we started doing some research and compiling lists of companies that would take used equipment,” explains Lisa Sepanski, project manager for the Computer Recovery Project.
Researchers soon discovered that monitors, in particular, posed a problem. “Nobody knew what to do with them, especially the ones that were broken,” Sepanski says. “So we decided that we wanted to expand our resource list and do a survey of the [computer-related] businesses out there in King County and Washington.”
SWD surveyed “anyone who had anything to do with computers,” Sepanski notes. It asked recipients whether they handled used equipment and, if so, what they did with it. Furthermore, if the recipient recycled computers, the county asked where the components went.
Based on responses to the survey, the SWD invited some of the businesses to participate in a roundtable discussion of recycling options. That group would, by 2000, form the network for the county’s Computer Recovery Project. “We asked them what they would be willing to accept from the public, and they made a laundry list of the types of materials they wanted,” Sepanski says. “We ended up with 34 locations that would accept various types of computer equipment; only about 10 accept monitors.”
Seattle-based consultants Pacific Rim Resources, hired by the county to organize the network, subcontracted Seattle-based Total Reclaim to accept broken monitors from the vendors that received them. The company would disassemble the units and send the components — including the CRTs — to recyclers.
“Reuse is our priority,” Sepanski says. “We want to get the stuff that’s still good out there into the community in some way, shape or form. Even if it’s unusable, each of the companies has a system in place to recycle the broken equipment. Only the dregs — the ancient, the you-can’t-get-it-to-work-no-matter-what stuff — gets sent to Total Reclaim.”
The program was tested last year, from July to October, and SWD launched it officially in November. The network sounds complicated, but for King County residents and businesses, it makes computer disposal easy. The owner chooses a vendor, drops off his computer, and he is done. He pays a standard $10 fee to cover monitor processing, and he may pay additional fees set independently by the vendor.
Since last July, thousands of computers have been taken to network vendors as a result of SWD’s program. The vendors do not differentiate between transactions that result from the Computer Recovery Project and those that do not, but Total Reclaim — which handles only the broken monitors — has received more than 4,000 units through the program.
SWD spent $180,000 to organize the project and develop promotional materials for it. The agency posts the drop-off locations on the county’s Web site, and it distributes brochures with the same information to local computer retailers. “Our logic there was: When people buy new computers, they’re going to wonder what to do with their old ones,” Sepanski says. An annual budget of $60,000 covers the cost of materials production and ongoing publicity.
Morris County, N.J. (population: 450,000)
With a permanent drop-off site and a one-day collection event, Morris County, N.J., has recovered more than 4 tons of used computer equipment since last September.
Administered by the county’s Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA), the program allows residents to bring unwanted computers to the county’s household hazardous waste facility in Mount Olive. There, everything from monitors and hard drives to keyboards and mice is collected and turned over to a demanufacturer.
The facility accepts a variety of hazardous wastes. Since just three people are on site to man the collections, MUA accepts drop-offs by appointment only. Residents are charged $3 for a hard drive or monitor, and $5 for both. Peripherals are accepted free.
The fees cover the costs of contracting with Bridgewater, N.J.-based NewTech Recycling, which demanufactures the computers and televisions that are collected at the facility. “We pay them 3 cents a pound for everything they pick up,” says Laura MacPherson, senior solid waste planner for MUA. “We assumed it would not cost us more than $15,000 for a one-year term, and, right now, our costs are not exceeding that.”
MUA markets its program with flyers and on its Web site. Supplemental one-day events (the next one is scheduled next month) are advertised in newspapers and on television. Additionally, MUA places inserts in coupon packets that are mailed to area residents.
Support for the county’s efforts is growing. “Our municipalities have gotten aboard, and they are educating their customers,” MacPherson says. “The more people hear about this, the more computers we’re seeing.”
Northern Cook County, Ill. (population: 800,000)
In July 1999, the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, Ill. (SWANCC) sponsored a one-day collection event, during which residents of Evanston could dispose of unwanted electronics, including computers. Two hundred cars arrived, carrying 16,000 pounds of electronics, prompting SWANCC to arrange similar events over the course of the next year.
SWANCC contracts with Lombard, Ill.-based System Service International (SSI) to demanufacture the items. Based on its haul at Evanston, SSI agreed to another one-day collection in October 1999.
For that event, SWANCC partnered with Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola, which offered its Arlington Heights campus as a collection site. “We promoted Arlington Heights more than we did the Evanston collection,” says Mary Allen, recycling and education director for SWANCC. Approximately 400 cars came, bringing 69,350 pounds.
The popularity of the collections has continued to grow. SWANCC and its partners sponsored a third event last April, and they plan another this June, despite the fact that enormous turnouts cause problems. “The last one was horribly overwhelming,” Allen says. “We had 1,300 cars and 216,510 pounds of material. It was too much to even plan for.”
Because of the increasing volume of equipment collected, SWANCC’s contractor has begun charging fees to offset its costs. “They’ll be charging 10 cents a pound for computer monitors and TVs, and then they’ll give us three to five cents a pound for hard drives and other things — components that have metals that they can recover and refine,” Allen says. She estimates that the next event will cost the agency $10,000 to $15,000 and notes that Motorola plans to share the costs.
Since the last collection, Allen has received numerous calls from Chicago-area organizations that are looking for working computers. In June, she would like to have personnel at the drop-off site to test the computers and divert them. “It would be nice to salvage the good things to be able to donate them to these organizations rather than scrapping them,” she says.
Additionally, SWANCC will try to limit the types of material that are dropped off at the June event. “We’re really going after residential stuff,” Allen notes. “We will limit businesses and even school districts. Last time, we had some school districts with big trucks full of computers and printers that took up a whole room. Things like that will be prohibited. They can drive directly to [SSI] to drop those off, and they can incur the costs.”
SWANCC publicizes its special collections on its Web site and issues press releases to area newspapers. Additionally, it publishes an annual recycling guide, which includes information on SWANCC and all its programs.
Hennepin County, Minn. (population: 1.1 million)
Since 1992, when Hennepin County, Minn., implemented its Residential Electronics Recycling Program (RERP), local collection of used electronics — from radios and telephones to computers and televisions — has soared. “We’ve seen a significant increase in electronics recycling overall,” says Amy Roering, senior planning analyst for the county’s Environmental Services Department. “For example, in 1995 we collected 435 tons, and in 1999 we collected 851 tons.”
The program is operated at two permanent facilities for household hazardous waste. Each site is open 40 hours per week, and each accepts working and non-working items, including CRTs. In addition to handling items that are dropped off by residents, the facilities accept electronics that are collected by individual cities or communities within Hennepin County.
Computers that can be reused — a small percentage of the computers collected by the county — are placed on the facilities’ reuse shelves and distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. All others are turned over to Minneapolis-based Project for Pride in Living (PPL), a nonprofit organization that has contracted with Hennepin County to disassemble the items from the RERP collections.
PPL breaks down the computers and separates the components, which are then distributed to several vendors hired by the county to recycle the parts. Lead is reclaimed from the monitors, and metals are recovered from circuit boards, relays and switches. (The county receives some revenue from the metal reclamation, but Roering says that the amount is minimal.) Plastic casings are removed from the computers and returned to the solid waste stream.
Hennepin County’s Environmental Services Department markets RERP on the county’s Web site. It distributes brochures and advertises in newspapers, and it works with municipalities within the county to publicize the program in their local media. Marketing costs are not figured into RERP expenses, which, in 1999, reached $878,000. (The amount includes costs for hauling, processing, labor and disposal of a variety of electronics, including computers.)
For more information about computer recycling and reuse; pilot projects; and links to industry resources, visit the Web sites for the National Recycling Coalition (www.nrc-recycle.org ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov ).