The Big Picture
As businesses use more and newer technology, electronic products quickly become obsolete and are replaced: The average initial lifetime of a personal computer is five years. An estimated 24 million computers reached the end of their first life in 1999; only 14% of those were recycled or reused. What happened to the rest? Old computers fill warehouses and landfills and can leak toxic wastes into the environment if not properly handled. The impact of this growing waste stream can decrease if reusable and valuable components are properly recycled and recovered.
Most unwanted computers follow one of three paths: the machines can be stored indefinitely, disassembled and recycled, or be used whole or in parts by a second user. Storage is the least-attractive option, for obvious reasons. Portions of used computers hold value that is recoverable through recycling -- precious metals such as copper, silver, and gold in the printed wiring boards are the most desirable -- but other parts contain hazardous metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury, which are regulated and can complicate disposal. The recycling value of a computer is estimated at just $30; the true cost of disposal to a company can reach more than $200, depending on the age and value of the computer and the administrative costs associated with its management. Reuse is the most financially viable option: Computers can be resold in whole or for their still-valuable components, or donated to schools and nonprofit organizations for a tax break.
- Primary recyclers are generally large diversified facilities that resell reusable computers or parts or disassemble units for recycling. Primary recyclers may ship scrap to overseas markets where labor costs are cheaper and environmental regulations more lax. If that doesn't fit with your company policy, be sure to ask for specific disposal practices when contracting with a primary recycler.
- Secondary recyclers "demanufacture" products to get at the raw materials; they generally get materials from primary recyclers or directly from manufacturers.
- Two categories of resellers include for-profit businesses that accept large donations or purchase equipment from corporations and may refurbish or repair and then resell; nonprofit resellers do less repair or refurbishment and then resell or donate products.
- Schools and other charitable organizations accept donations of computers in working condition.
- For a fee, some computer manufacturers are following the European model of taking back computer equipment at the end of its useful life. IBM manages a Product-End-of-Life Management program that collects old equipment from customers during the installation of new equipment.
Getting Down to Business
The following are examples of innovative strategies to deal with computer waste:
- BASF Corp.'s PC Standardization Project lets American and Canadian employees buy the company's personal computers as equipment is replaced. Desktop and laptop computers -- mostly 486 and 586 models -- are upgraded to Pentium-level computers and sold at below-market prices to full-time employees, based on seniority.
- Rodale Press, an Emmaus, Pennsylvania, publisher had "several hundred very ancient CPUs that had no working monitors or keyboards, and which were simply taking up space in our warehouse," says Bob Martin, director, Corporate & Community Services. Martin assumed that "the only option was a precious metal/ferrous metal recycler." A colleague toured a hands-on science and technology museum for kids that had a display of electronic equipment for kids to take apart. Rodale donated its computers to the museum, effectively handling their waste and helping area kids see how computers work.
Profits generated from resale of whole computers and components can offset the cost of recycling less-valuable machines. Computer donation benefits the community, generates positive publicity, and can provide the company with a tax deduction. Reuse or recycling of used computers can be an important environmental marketing strategy for a company.
Coordinating the disposal effort can take staff time and company resources, from choosing and contacting a reuse or recycling organization and setting up contracts with those recyclers to clearing the used computers of confidential information and licensed software, and transporting the machines to the recycling facility. Often the cost of recycling a computer can outweigh its value, leaving a company to pay for administrative costs as well as recycling.
- Follow the hierarchy of reuse, repair, recycle.
- Try to lease computers from a company that will take back the equipment and dispose of it properly. Many of these programs will help dispose of computers that come from other manufacturers as well.
- Reuse computers or component parts within your company. Upgrade systems to prolong life by installing more memory or other components.
- Sell older working computers in-house.
- Donate working computers to schools and nonprofits, or sell them to a third-party reseller.
- Sell working and non-working computers to a recycler.
- Purchase electronic products with increased recyclability, such as labels on the plastic parts, or equipment that is designed for easy disassembly.
- The Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Project provides a listing of computer recycling contacts, information on how to recycle old computers, and recent reports on computer recycling.
- The National Recycling Coalition's Electronics Recycling Initiative offers a database of recyclers and U.S. state, local, and federal policies for electronics recycling.
- Carnegie Mellon University's Green Design Initiative features a comprehensive list of places to turn, from CRT glass recyclers and component recovery facilities to software recyclers.
- International Association of Electronics Recyclers represents the interests of electronics recyclers in developing an effective and efficient infrastructure for managing the life-cycle of electronics products.
- Resources for Parents, Educators, and Publishers features a directory of agencies that facilitate donations of used computer hardware for schools and community groups.
Environmental regulations increasingly dictate that old computers and related equipment can't be landfilled. Companies must commit to alternate management solutions, such as reuse. With some effort those solutions can benefit the company, the environment, and the community.