March 2005

Who is responsible for computer recycling?
by Donna Currie

Computers are everywhere – homes, offices, libraries, and, unfortunately, landfills. Landfilling old computers is not a good option for the environment. Recycling is an alternative, but the cost of recycling can be more than the value of the reclaimed materials, especially with monitors. Computers and other electronics have to go somewhere. The question is, “who is going to pay?”

The Computer TakeBack Campaign (CTBC) is one group that is taking a close look at the problem, examining proposed solutions, and encouraging manufacturers to become more responsible for end-of-life products. Other organizations that are looking at the environmental impact of computer disposal are the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) and the Basel Action Network (BAN).

In 2003, the CTBC targeted Dell “because of the company’s market leadership and because their business model is particularly well suited to comprehensive product take-back programs,” according to the CTBC website.

When asked about the CTBC’s conversations with Dell, Bryant Hilton of Dell said, “It was an eye-opener.” While Dell was a relative latecomer to the concept of taking back home users’ old computers, once they started, they built a program quickly.

Dell had programs for recycling business customer’s computers for “probably up to a decade” according to Hilton, and that effort made sense in years past, as Dell’s business model had been focused on businesses rather than consumers. After meeting with the CTBC as well as representatives of some socially responsible investment funds, Dell realized their shortcomings in regards to recycling.

In March of 2003, Dell launched a recycling program, and in July of 2004, they enhanced the program so that recycling is free for customers who purchase a new computer. The process is simple. The customer orders a pre-paid shipping label when buying a new computer. The label is used to ship the old computer for recycling. Dell contracts with regional recyclers, and requires “stringent audit trails (for tracking the computers) to make sure they aren’t shipped overseas or in landfills,” according to Hilton.

Another option Dell offers is the opportunity to donate used, working computers to the National Cristina Foundation (NCF). Donations go to disabled or economically disadvantaged children and adults. Hilton noted that one thing people like is that the donated computers stay in the state they are donated from.

People who have not purchased a computer from Dell can still take advantage of the recycling program, for a fee. The cost varies, but is usually under $15 for a box of computer equipment weighing up to fifty pounds.

In an experimental program, Dell partnered with the city of Austin, Texas and with the local Goodwill. Hilton said it was a “win-win program for everyone.” Goodwill refurbished the computers, so there were more working computers at the end of the program, and less scrap to be recycled. Hilton indicated that this type of program could be launched in other locations around the county, but not all Goodwill centers are prepared to repair computers.

This year, the CTBC targeted Apple Computer, beginning with picketing Apple at their headquarters on January 10 and continuing the next day at the MacWorld conference in San Francisco. The CTBC’s website says, in part, “…because Apple has designed the iPod so that consumers cannot easily replace the batteries, consumers will either have to pay Apple a hefty fee or throw the used up iPods in the trash, ending up in landfills where the iPods will leak their poisons into our communities through the water and air. Some will be shipped overseas to China, India or Africa for metal recovery where poor children sifting through the trash will be poisoned with their toxics.”

Fletcher Cook, an Apple spokesman, has a different story. According to Cook, Apple believes in product stewardship, where all parties “have a role in managing the products at the end of their life.” He said that recycling is a “combined effort of everyone, including the consumer.” If consumers don’t make an effort to recycle computer products, there is little the manufacturers can do to compel them.

In October, 2002, in Apple’s home town, Cupertino California, Apple partnered with the city to create an electronics recycling program that allows residents to “return used and unwanted systems free of charge,” according to Cook. The program takes any brand of computer, as well as other selected typed of home electronics.

For consumers outside the local area, Apple has had a mail-in recycling program in effect since 2001. The customer purchases a $30 pre-paid shipping label, which pays all the costs for shipping and recycling up to sixty pounds of electronics in a box that is 26” x 26” x 26” or less. The box goes directly to one of Apple’s authorized recyclers, and after processing, the customer receives a certificate of recycling, verifying that it was handled properly.

Metech International is one of the recycling companies that Apple sends computers to. Jim Gardner at Metech explained that computer and electronics recycling rules vary by state, making recycling a little more complicated.

For example, California has adopted the use of Advance Recovery Fees (ARFs) which collect a fee from the consumer at the time of purchase. That fee is used to help pay for recycling.

Maine collects fees at the other end – at the time of recycling. They attempt to collect money from the manufacturers of the computers that are being recycled. However, there is no way to collect fees from manufacturers that have gone out of business, or where the manufacturer can’t be determined.

One group that is striving for a unified program for recycling is the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI). According to their website, their goal is “”the development of a system, which includes a viable financing mechanism, to maximize the collection, reuse, and recycling of used electronics, while considering appropriate incentives to design products that facilitate source reduction, reuse and recycling; reduce toxicity; and increase recycled content.”

Hewlett Packard (HP) has a program in place for computer hardware. Unlike other companies, HP has its own recycling facilities, one in California, which opened in 1997, and a second in Tennessee. They also use partner recyclers for some products, but these recyclers must adhere to HP’s hardware recycling standards.

Working computers and peripherals may be eligible for a trade-in. These units, along with repaired equipment, are sold online as refurbished or are donated. HP will accept any brand of product, as long as it is a type of product that HP manufactures.

In July of 2004, HP launched a six-week program with Office Depot where customers could bring in one computer product a day for free recycling. While that program has ended, HP is pursuing the development of a similar program that they could maintain on an ongoing basis.

Viewsonic may be best known for monitors, and monitors are well-known as a major recycling problem. Marc Maupin, the director of quality assurance at Viewsonic said that the company had a recycling program in effect before he came to the company seven years ago. “The intent is to be friendly for the environment,” Maupin said.

Viewsonic’s Trade-in Trade-up program allows customers to trade in an old monitor, and based on the age and type of monitor, the customer gets credit towards a new one. Non-working but repairable monitors are repaired and sold as refurbished, while non-working or obsolete monitors are directed to Viewsonic’s recycling partner, Anything IT. While there is no fee for recycling, the customer must pay for shipping.

Dave Bernstein, president of Anything IT, explained that they are a government contractor and have partnerships with other computer manufacturers besides Viewsonic, including Fujitsu and Samsung. Not only can they take in individual computer products from home users, they can also handle the logistics of recycling computers for companies who need help with shipping, documentation, and destruction. “We help clients manage this process,” Bernstein said.

American Power Conversion (APC) makes battery backups typically used for computers and peripherals. The batteries can be a recycling problem, but APC makes it easy. When a customer buys a replacement battery for an APC product, a pre-paid shipping label for the return of an old battery is included. According to customer service rep Josh Lanni, the president of APC, Rodger B. Dowdell Jr., “is adamant about recycling batteries.”

APC takes in batteries for recycling, even if a replacement has not been purchased; the customer just pays for the shipping. A list of battery return facilities is available on APC’s website; in the U.S., batteries go to Fortune Plastic & Metal in New Jersey. APC also notes that their batteries can be taken to a Sears automotive facility where they can be recycled for a fee.

“Common knowledge” says that computers are difficult to get rid of, but in this case it appears that common knowledge is wrong. Every computer manufacturer contacted had some sort of recycling program in place, each with its own costs and benefits. Online investigation of other companies revealed even more recycling options including the Shared Responsibility Program implemented by Sony and IBM’s PC Recycling Service.

While consumers may not want to pay for recycling, government restrictions on disposal of computer waste may eventually make recycling mandatory. At the same time, manufacturers are partnering with local governments, organizations, and retailers to host local recycling events where equipment can be turned in at no cost.

It’s not a perfect system. Sources estimated that only five to ten percent of discarded computers are currently being recycled. If more states follow in the footsteps of California and Maine, the additional funds may make the recycling of computer equipment attractive to more recyclers. If government regulations become more consistent, it will make following regulations easier for national companies. If manufacturers construct their products with an eye to recycling and educate their customers, perhaps the percentages will rise. But once again, as with all recycled products, the consumer must be responsible and hold up their end of the bargain.


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