Growing Worry for Businesses: Old Computers

Laurie J. Flynn, New York Times

It could
contain traces of mercury, cadmium, fire retardant and up to five pounds of
lead, making it one of the biggest sources of hazardous waste in the country.

And it is
sitting right on your desk.

It is your
aging personal computer, a piece of equipment that is a lot easier to buy than
to dispose of properly. With the rate of obsolescence accelerating – most
organizations now consider a personal computer outdated in three years –
dealing with old equipment is no small matter. Last year, more than 63 million
computers in the United
States were replaced by faster, better and
most likely cheaper systems. Where does it all go?

Businesses
in the United States
are just beginning to address that question with some planning and
coordination. Those that have taken control of their electronic waste problems
are finding it can pay off in many ways.

For
Kaiser Permanente, a well-thought-out electronic waste plan has given the
company great leverage in negotiating with equipment vendors, said Lynn Garske,
Kaiser's environmental stewardship manager. Today, it buys only from
manufacturers that meet its guidelines for reducing the use of certain toxic
substances like mercury, a requirement that extends beyond computers to medical
supplies and even carpeting. (Mercury and cadmium are still used, in some
cases, in the printed circuit boards that are found in PC's.)

"We
wanted to send them a signal that we were taking seriously the elimination of
toxic chemicals," Ms. Garske said. Computer manufacturers have been
working for years on reducing the amount of waste their systems create. Apple
Computer uses no mercury or cadmium, and has reduced the amount of lead by
converting from screens with cathode-ray tubes, which have lead, to
liquid-crystal displays.

Michael Green, executive director of the Center
for Environmental Health, said that more and more companies were discovering
the influence they have on the materials that manufacturers use in making
computers. "If a company that buys 25,000 computers says they'll only buy
from them if they'll agree to take it back when they're done with it, it can
make a profound difference," Mr. Green said.

Like many
companies, Kaiser works with a single recycling broker to deal with its
hazardous waste, a process it started in 1999. Since then, the company, based
in Oakland, Calif., has replaced 64,000 computers. Of
those, 10,000 were moved to other areas within Kaiser, and 14,000 were
recycled. The remaining 40,000 were sold to individuals and organizations, many
overseas, where demand is high for used equipment.

For
businesses, the challenge is finding a recycling broker who can ensure that the
computers are actually being recycled. While reports from regulatory agencies
vary, some estimate that as much as 80 percent of old computer equipment and
other electronics collected for recycling end up in landfills in developing
countries in Asia, South America or Africa.
While dumping electronic waste is illegal in the United States, the international market
is largely unregulated, making abuse rampant. To make matters worse, some of
this equipment arrives at the landfills still containing private information,
including financial and health records.

To try to
regulate the recycling industry, the Basel Action Network, an environmental
advocacy organization in Seattle,
and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition have developed rigorous criteria for
dismantling and recycling electronic waste. Recyclers that are part of this
program must agree to prevent hazardous waste from going to landfills or to
developing countries, and they must agree not to use prison labor to take
computers apart, once a common practice among recyclers. Recyclers who comply
can then market themselves with something akin to a seal of approval. Dozens of
recycling companies nationwide have made the list, which is available at the
advocacy groups' Web sites, among other places.

Kaiser
signed with its recycling broker after weeding out organizations that did not
meet those criteria. Most important, Kaiser demanded a guarantee that the data
on its discarded systems remain confidential, Ms. Garske said.

Several
states have recently passed laws mandating who pays for the recycling of
electronics. California
requires customers to pay an electronic waste recycling fee at the time of
sale. Maine, Maryland
and most recently Washington,
on the other hand, place the burden on the manufacturer to recycle used
electronics, including collecting and transporting it.

Tom
Delia, president of Advanced Recycling Technology, a recycler in Hudson, N.Y.,
said that companies could increase the value of their outdated equipment by
taking careful inventory. That way, when the recycling truck arrives the
company can easily see which machines are most likely to be resalable and which
are destined for the dismantlers. For example, documenting the types of
microprocessors inside a system lets a recycler quickly determine its resale
value.

"Most
companies don't want to put the time into qualifying their technology,"
Mr. Delia said. For those organizations that keep records of their equipment,
recycling is cheaper because the recycler's costs go down, he said.

Mr. Delia
estimated that 60 percent of the discarded computer equipment his company
receives can be refurbished and resold. "The export market is growing for
refurbished computers," he said.

The remainder is recycled, with the plastic,
metal, glass and other material separated and sold to various industries. Some
businesses and consumers are taking the easy way out by not doing anything at
all, Mr. Delia said. He estimates that 1 in 10 old computers is sitting in a
garage or storeroom awaiting a decision that often takes an owner several years
to make. For many companies, the problem is protecting confidential information.
"People are really concerned about their data, so they tend to sit on
their old stuff," Mr. Delia said.   That
means that individuals and companies often hold on to obsolete equipment until
it is too old to be valuable to another user, Mr. Delia said. "The sooner
you're done with it, get it out," he said. "The asset value goes down
every month."

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