Most computers are born in spotless, well-lit factories where every task and part is carefully choreographed. Most of them die inside cluttered, dimly lit warehouses like the one operated by Axcess Technologies, an Austin electronics recycling firm.
On a cool afternoon in early February, a trio of Axcess employees equipped with bulky electric screwdrivers methodically plow through a shipping pallet loaded with dozens of 80386-based computers. Every wire, board and circuit gets pulled out of the machines. The guts are then sorted: Power supplies get tossed into one huge cardboard hamper. Other hampers hold motherboards, modems and sound cards. Its a slow process.
"It can take us nearly as long to tear down an old computer as it does for one of the big companies to build a new one," says Randy Weiss, general manager at Axcess. In an average week, he estimates that his workers can demanufacture a couple thousand computers. During that same week, factories operated by Dell Computer, the glittering headquarters of which sit about 20 miles north of Axcess warehouse, can produce more than 400,000 brand-new computers.
Therein lies the crux of the computer recycling problem: Can companies like Axcess keep pace with the growing tsunami of obsolete computers?
Last year, the National Recycling Coalition predicted that between now and 2007, about 500 million personal computers will become obsolete. In 1998 alone, the group found that 20 million computers were taken out of service. Of those, only about 10 percent were recycled. The low recycling rate worries environmentalists, who point out that computers can contain several dangerous substances that should be kept out of landfills.
Computer and electronics manufacturers are responding. On Feb. 1, the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) launched a program to educate consumers about recycling waste electronics. The groups new Consumer Education Initiative Web site, www.eiae.org, includes state-by-state lists of electronics recyclers. It also lists charities and schools interested in taking used computers, and industry- and government-run collection programs, as well as facts about used electronics and links to other Web sites.
Later this year, members of the EIA, including Apple Computer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sony and Toshiba, will begin distributing information sheets on electronics recycling alongside the owner manuals they give to new customers. They will also begin putting labels on their electronics to guide consumers to the EIA Web site.
H. Scott Matthews, research director of the Green Design Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, has been studying the computer waste issue since 1991. The EIAs action is a "a huge step in the right direction," Matthews says. But he adds that the education campaign is "not a big commitment" by computer manufacturers.
Rob Nichols, an EIA spokesman, says criticism of computer makers is "somewhat unfair. This is still an emerging issue. Its an issue that is just now hitting families and consumers for the first time." He says the EIAs new effort is an acknowledgment by the industry that it needs to do more.
Computer makers and environmentalists are concerned about proper disposal of computers because they can contain a toxic cocktail of materials, including mercury, cadmium and arsenic. They may also contain marketable metals: copper, gold, iron, lead and silver.
Of all the materials used in computer equipment, the lead contained in monitors may be the most problematic. Like televisions, computer monitors contain cathode-ray tubes, each of which is up to 20 percent lead. A single monitor may contain 5 pounds to 8 pounds of lead that can seep into the ground water, or, if the tube is burned in an incinerator, be released into the air. Massachusetts recently banned CRTs from its landfills, and other states may follow. Some landfill companies are also considering a ban on CRTs.
Although some monitors and computers are being put into trash bins, most are being stashed in closets and attics. "Theres an instinctual knowledge that the computer doesnt belong in the trash, but people just dont know what to do with it," says Randy Lewis, general manager of All Tech Computer Recyclers in Hawthorne, Calif., which processes about 40,000 pounds of computer-related materials every month.
Recycling Hardware Holds Few Guarantees
But recycling electronics is a risky business with razor-thin profit margins. For instance, the scrap value of an 80386-based machine may be as little as $2. Newer machines can be more profitable, but each one must be evaluated, tested and then resold as either scrap or as a low-cost system. Constantly changing commodity prices and difficult logistics add further uncertainty. When they are smelted, a ton of motherboards might yield 10 ounces of gold. Depending on commodity prices, American recyclers may ship old monitors or other electronics to South Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines or China for smelting or reuse.
Although the economics of computer recycling are precarious, several manufacturers have launched initiatives to address the issue.
One of the earliest to embrace large-scale recycling was Hewlett-Packard. Three years ago, the company teamed up with Micro Metallics to open a recycling plant in Roseville, Calif. The plant now handles about 3 million pounds of used electronics per month.
In June, Gateway launched a program that gives customers a $100 discount on a new machine if they donate a functioning, 386-class or better computer to Goodwill Industries, an organization that works to better the lives of people with disabilities.
Dell has a recycling program for its commercial customers.
In mid-November, IBM announced one of the most innovative programs in the industry. If consumers will agree to pay $29.99, box up their old computer of any make or vintage, and haul it to the nearest United Parcel Service station, IBM will make sure the machine is either donated to a charity or recycled.
"Theres a global trend for manufacturers to be part of a better solution," says Wayne Balta, director of corporate environmental affairs at IBM.
The company began the program, Balta says, because consumers were asking for it. IBM was also concerned that obsolescence was increasing the number of old computers and it wanted to keep its used machines out of landfills.
IBM has had computer recycling programs in place in Europe for several years. There, regulations on computer recycling vary from country to country. But that could soon change. European regulators are considering rules that could force manufacturers that sell their products in the European Union to take back their obsolete equipment. According to Balta, the Netherlands requires manufacturers to take back their old electronics. In Switzerland, he says, consumers pay a recycling fee when they buy a new computer. The money goes into a fund that covers the cost of recycling the machines when they are discarded.
David Stitzhal, president of Full Circle Environmental, a Seattle consulting firm, believes the Swiss model deserves consideration in America. "We need to take environmental costs and shift them to the consumer," says Stitzhal, a member of the Northwest Product Stewardship Council, a collaborative effort that includes local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations. The group encourages manufacturers of electronics, apparel, groceries and medical products to integrate environmental stewardship into their design and manufacturing.
Some computer makers are making changes. Both Panasonic and Sony now use lead-free solder in some of their products. HP has eliminated the use of mercury in some of its printers. Apple has standardized the type of plastic it uses in many of its products. IBM and several other computer makers are using snap fasteners instead of screws — a change that allows faster manufacturing and demanufacturing.
While the design changes will help, computers will never be as easy to recycle as commodities like newspaper or glass. For years to come, coping with waste computers will require brigades of workers equipped with screwdrivers in drafty warehouses.
"Its labor-intensive and its expensive. So a lot of companies dont want to do it," says Axcess Weiss. And because margins are so thin, his company has to process large numbers of computers to make a profit. Right now, Weiss has plenty: Stacked on two dozen shrink-wrapped pallets — each of which is six feet tall — several thousand old 80386 computers are waiting to be scrapped.
But once his workers finish gutting them, Weiss may not get another large shipment of old computers for several weeks. For analysts like Matthews, that spells trouble. "The problem is the waste stream in electronics recycling is very hard to predict," he says, and few businesses are able to survive for long without predictable revenue.
Although he fears there wont be enough companies like Axcess to handle all the obsolete computers now stashed under desks and in closets, Matthews is pleased that the EIA and computer makers are getting involved. And after years of pessimism about the future of electronics recycling, Matthews is starting to change his opinion. Now, he says, "Im cautiously optimistic."