Originally created 05/27/01

Computer industry slowly responding to calls for better recycling

ROSEVILLE, Calif. -- At Hewlett-Packard Co.'s recycling plant, giant machine with rolling drums and brick-sized blades thunders away, crushing personal computers, servers and printers to bits.

Despite all the noise the machine makes, its work is part of a quiet movement in its infancy in the high-tech world - the recycling of PCs and other electronics, which are filled with toxic chemicals but rarely are disposed of properly.

The Roseville plant fuels HP's electronics recycling program, which is being expanded Monday. For a fee, HP now will pick up any manufacturer's electronics from individual customers who sign up on a Web site, besides its recycling program already established for businesses. Businesses negotiate a contract to pay HP for the recycling service.

"This is something HP is doing because we should," said Renee St. Denis, HP Environmental Business manager. "It's not something we do for money."

HP's recycling program, which started in 1997, is one of the recent attempts to deal with the millions of electronics that are sitting in garages and business storerooms because they can't be thrown away.

The cathode ray tubes in PC monitors are particularly toxic, with lead, mercury and cadmium. In California, the tubes were declared hazardous waste this year, which makes disposing of them even more difficult because they are no longer allowed in landfills.

"The lead is there to protect us from getting radiated from our televisions and our monitors," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a policy group trying to raise awareness of the need for recycling electronics. "But that lead is in a form that can easily migrate into the environment and impact the environment and impact human health."

Experts say programs like Hewlett-Packard's are a good start, but add that not enough companies are facing the problem. They say there are not enough agencies to handle the volume of electronics that need to be recycled, the cost of collection is high, and there is no collection system in place that is easy for consumers to use.

The company is not sure how much more the volume will increase, but the company gets hundreds of calls a month from people wanting the service, said HP spokeswoman Rebeca Robboy.

According to a 1999 survey by Stanford Resources Inc., a technology research firm, about 500 million PCs are expected to be obsolete by 2007.

Murray estimates that if California alone could somehow recycle its share of those dead computers over the next five years, the cost would be $500 million to $1 billion.

"The infrastructure right now is being overwhelmed, and we're maybe recycling at a 10 to 15 percent rate," he said.

HP charges $13 to $34 for each item it recycles - including computers made by other companies - and says the fees are used to pay for the recycling program.

No ad campaign is currently planned to publicize the program other than the company's newsgram that goes to 4 million HP customers who sign up for it when they buy a computer.

"They did this with our toner cartridge program and got a huge, huge response," Robboy said.

The company first figures out which computers still work and can be fixed up to be resold. Those that can't are mined for working parts, and the rest of the computer is run through the Roseville machine.

Precious metals are harvested, and the plastic pieces - reduced to the size of nickels - are sent to a smelter to be turned into energy. Even the dust from the crushing is sent to a smelter. Every part of the computer is sent to a place where it can be reused, so nothing winds up in landfills.

HP hopes to open another plant in Tennessee this year, and then expand into other areas of the world. The take back service for residential customers is already offered in some European countries, and on June 1, HP is going to extend the program to other major countries not currently offering it. It is required by law in Europe.

IBM Corp., which also has a recycling operation, charges $29.99 per box of items shipped. Gateway Inc. has a trade-in program that offers a rebate of up to $50 on a new computer. It donates old machines that still work to organizations such as Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army, and recycles machines that can't be used.

In hopes of broadening programs like these, a group of manufacturers, environmentalists and governments have formed a National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative that will spend the next year coming up with ideas. Whatever agreements emerge will not be binding.

One member of the task force is Sherry Enzler, director of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. Minnesota has been one of the leading states in electronics recycling, having studied the problem and come up with ways to try to deal with it.

"We proposed legislation on product stewardship, and we received huge opposition from businesses," she said. "We decided we really needed to take a different approach to how we addressed product stewardship in general."

Now Minnesota has abandoned its plans to have a discussion with industry officials and its experiments to see what worked best for a recycling program, in hopes a nationwide system arises that would be easier for businesses to participate, Enzler said.

Most states have some way to deal with obsolete electronics, through public or private facilities that reuse them or to recycle them, according to the Electronics Industries Alliance, whose Web site gives names and addresses of places people can take their old PCs.

The states with no place to take used electronics include Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming, according to the site, launched in February.

The state had started discussions with industry officials

If a national program comes about, it should not only encourage recycling but also promote "stronger design changes" to make electronic devices less environmentally hazardous, said Scott Cassel, director of the Product Stewardship Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

"What else we need to do is create markets for the leasing or procurement of environmentally friendly computers, as well as the purchase of products made from recycled materials derived from electronic equipment," he said.

Forcing customers to pay could be a deterrent because few would do so, said Mark Kennedy, a technical adviser for the California Integrated Waste Management Board. That's why Murray suggests the cost of recycling a product, from $10 to $25, be included in the price of buying it, instead of at the end of its life.

On the Net:




Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report: www.nsc.org/ehc/epr2/baseline.htm



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