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<nettime> Millions of Obsolete PCs Enter Waste Stream

   Millions of Obsolete PCs Enter Waste Stream
   IT departments struggle to figure out what to do with old computers
   By Kim S. Nash
Strip-mining old PCs Just what happens to that old PC when it lands on
a recycler's workbench?  

An experienced recycler can strip a PC to its sellable parts inside of
10 minutes, said Sal Massaro, manager of Monmouth Wire & Computer
Recycling Corp.  in Tinton Falls, N.J. Massaro does it by hand, with
pliers and plastic goggles.  

First the circuit boards are pulled out, then pulled apart. The gold,
silver, aluminum, insulated copper wire, steel -- it's all sellable.
The plastic cases are shredded and sold to plastics recyclers. Old
computer plastic can eventually end up in children's toys.  

These days, aluminum gets 40 cents per pound. A pound of steel gets
just a few cents. Copper wire brings 20 cents per pound. With about
1.5 pounds of copper in a single PC, it can take awhile to add up.  

To make recycling cost-effective, the minimum batch of PCs Massaro
accepts is 50. He'll usually arrange to have them picked up in a
tractor-trailer truck for free, but sometimes he charges for freight.  

For A&B Recycling Inc. in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., the older the
computer, the better.  

"Gold was cheaper in the 1960s, so they used more of it in computers,"
explained Lamar Bearden, A&B's owner.  

Bearden gets 10 cents per pound of gold for low-grade gold; up to $1
per pound for higher quality stuff.  

Not only is there less gold in today's PC, but it's of a lower
quality, he said. "It takes trailer loads to make a few ounces." 

The hazardous waste of a PC -- lithium batteries, mercury switches,
tubes in the monitor, for example -- must be extracted and handled

At A&B, those pieces are sealed in black 55-gallon drums, labeled and
sent to proper disposal facilities, Bearden said.  

If monitors are all Bearden is handling for a client, he charges $5 to
$7.50 to take away each one. But if he's getting other more marketable
equipment from the company as well, he usually takes the monitors at
no charge.  

The Walt Disney Co., Panasonic USA and General Instrument Corp. are
among the companies that send used computers to A&B.  

"Circuit boards aren't considered hazardous (by law) but they are to
me, rotting away and leaching into soil," Bearden said. Companies that
improperly dump computers "ought to be fined till they're out of
business," he said.

04/10/2000 People swamp Web sites that offer free computers, but Paul
Kirk couldn't give away 800 Pentium PCs last fall.  

Computer disposal firms declined to take the machines, saying they
were already loaded with castoffs that weren't year 2000-compliant.
Charities and schools said 133 MHz was too slow for them.  

Finally, Kirk, information technology manager at United Companies
Financial Corp. in Baton Rouge, La., was able to sell about 400 PCs to
employees for $100 each. The rest went to recyclers that dismantled
them and sold the scrap copper, gold and glass.  

There's an overlooked byproduct of Moore's Law: more garbage.
Companies that upgrade hardware every three years face an increasingly
critical problem: what to do with tired, old computers.  

Only 39% of 102 IT managers surveyed by Computerworld said they have a
consistent, companywide policy for dealing with retired hardware.  

"People continue to ignore the situation. It's bad all around," said
Frances O'Brien, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Think about the volume: More than 20 million PCs became obsolete in
1998 -- but just 14% of those were recycled or donated, according to
the latest figures from the National Safety Council, an environmental
watchdog group in Washington.

Gartner says 114 million PCs were sold last year, and another 133
million will be sold this year. And they'll all need a final resting
place in a few years.

Costly Storage

Without a plan in place, PC disposal is a scramble for IT departments.
Many companies actually end up spending money on machines that are no
longer worth anything, either by paying recyclers to haul them away or
by warehousing them for lack of a better idea.

For example, while Kirk was trying to shed his retired PCs, the
machines sat for six months in building space that United Companies
normally rents out for $17.50 per sq. ft.

"The rate of obsolescence in computer and electronics industries is so
incredible that you have vast quantities of waste entering the waste
stream, and the infrastructure to deal with that hasn't developed,"
said John Hanson, executive director of the Recycling Council of
Ontario in Toronto.

Meanwhile, some recyclers -- which buy used gear to resell or
dismantle for scrap -- are so flush that they're turning away

Roughly 17% of users in the Computerworld survey admitted to throwing
PCs out with the trash. Yet when computers sit in landfills,
environmentalists say, poisonous chemicals such as lead and cadmium
escape into the air, soil and water.

Hardware disposal is now "a lot more pressing for us," said Joe
Burrus, desktop coordinator at Apache Corp., an oil company in
Houston. "It would be nice to get three years out of a good desktop,
but it's just not working out that way."

Burrus and his staff recently spent several weeks erasing hard drives
and finding nonprofits to take 250 Compaq Computer Corp. Pentiums that
were no longer usable by Apache after its Y2k remediation.

An upgrade to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000 late this year will
produce another 150 used Compaqs to deal with, he said. Burrus plans
to donate them but doesn't know exactly where they will go.

The task of finding proper homes for retired equipment often falls to
environmentally conscious IT staffers.

Ruesch International Inc. Chief Technology Officer Ron Szoc and his
staff recently ushered 150 used PCs to local shelters and children's

Still, Ruesch, a finance firm in Washington, ends up junking some
machines. "No one wants a 286. You can't run (the latest) Windows on
it," Szoc said. "It's like an empty tin can. You need to throw it
away." He figured the company has tossed 10 or 15 such boxes.

Part of the problem is no one group wants to take responsibility for
hardware disposal.

Many user companies and analysts say PC companies should take back
retired hardware. Indeed, some do -- but only for their very biggest
customers and only if a deal is made at the time of purchase or lease.

Garbage collection companies say PC makers should use safer, nontoxic
materials during manufacturing.

PC companies generally say that local governments should set up
facilities for the safe disposal of computer junk.

But computers are a mix of varied, and sometimes toxic, materials.
That makes recycling difficult and time-consuming, because someone has
to separate the parts, said Gary Kelman, an officer at the National
Association of Environmental Professionals in South Portland, Maine.

Toxic Seepage

"What you don't want to do is incinerate (whole PCs)," Kelman said,
because that releases mercury, cadmium, lead and other toxic chemicals
into the air.

Dumping computers into landfills isn't any better. "Lead and solder
could slowly get into groundwater," he said.

That's not necessarily so, countered Jason Rose, assistant operations
manager at Idaho Waste Systems Inc. in Boise.

Computers do end up in Idaho Waste landfills, but the company guards
against poisonous seepage, Rose said. "There's a liner system in there
and a collection system to keep anything from migrating away from the
landfill into water," he said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies computers as
hazardous but hasn't aggressively enforced disposal regulations.

Europe, however, is taking a tougher stand. The U.S. exports $40.6
billion in high-tech gear to Europe annually, and the European
Commission thinks the industry could act more responsibly.

The EC wants to force PC makers to take back used equipment, at least
in Europe. The so-called directive on Waste from Electronics and
Electrical Equipment (WEEE) would also require PC companies to phase
out harmful materials in manufacturing by 2004.

Some hardware companies are already moving in that direction but only
in certain plants and only for some toxins.

A vote on WEEE is expected this month, and PC companies are vigorously
fighting it.

Through various trade groups, including the American Electronics
Association (AEA), PC firms say the cost of taking back all of their
old products and revamping their manufacturing processes would be too
onerous and a barrier to trade. The AEA has urged U.S. Trade
Representative Charlene Barshefsky to object to the proposals, which
she has done.

The AEA says PCs aren't really harmful in practical terms. "It's not
like people are opening the things up and eating (what's inside). It's
the degree of exposure that's important," said Jennifer Guhl, a
lobbyist at the AEA in Washington.

While the state of Massachusetts decreed April 1 that monitors must be
recycled, the federal government isn't expected to enact anything
similar to WEEE, experts agreed.

Lacking guidance from regulators or the waste industry, corporate IT
managers are on their own. Analysts such as Gartner's O'Brien urge
users to figure disposal into their total cost of ownership estimates
and, more important, devise formal PC retirement policies before
buying the machines.

"You've got to start taking responsibility for this," she said.

Computerworld, Inc. All rights reserved. Legal notices and trademark

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