Computer reincarnation

Obsolete machines have value, but the trick is figuring out what to do with them

Test and recycle technician Jim Whittamore “demanufactures” a computer.

Test and recycle technician Jim Whittamore “demanufactures” a computer.

Photo by Larry Dalton

If one of your New Year’s resolutions was getting rid of computer parts that have been collecting dust since they were state-of-the-art back in the mid-1990s or so, the obvious solution is hauling it all out to the curb.

While quick and easy, that’s not the most environmentally friendly way to cross that item off your resolutions list. Depending on how strictly new laws are enforced, your local trash hauler might haul your electronic waste away. Yet even if you get away with it, you will have added several pounds of toxic waste to a landfill somewhere.

That, over the next few years, will leach into surrounding soil (see “Toxic Technology,” SN&R, September 13, 2001). So, what should you do with this e-junk? The first step to a solution is to give it a different name. One person’s obsolete 486 is somebody else’s educational opportunity or raw material waiting to be mined.

Folsom Cordova Unified School District has offered its high-school students hands-on computer technology training since 1998, utilizing somewhat obsolete computers.

Under the auspices of SPIRIT (Student Program Integrating Refurbished Intel Technology), students evaluate, repair, upgrade and refurbish donated computers. Parts are obtained from the huge inventory of used computers constantly donated to the school district. As they learn technical skills the students also manage the vast inventory.

The refurbished computers are donated to Folsom Cordova schools. Last year alone, according to Shirley Churchill, SPIRIT coordinator, some 600 old computers were reincarnated in classrooms, thus defraying the cost of purchasing new ones. Many students who participated in SPIRIT have gone on to either obtain a technology sector job after graduation or become engineering majors at four-year universities.

Since most schools in California cannot afford to pay a full-time computer repair person, this innovative program fills a vacuum, providing enough dependable computers so each student learning word processing, spreadsheet use and graphics can do so on their own machine.

Though SPIRIT is the only training and recycling program currently available in the Sacramento area, Churchill says it is constantly expanding as more students express interest.

Any type of computer is accepted. Of course, the students are not able to utilize all the computer components that come their way.

Once the cyber-carcasses have been picked clean, SPIRIT sends them to California Electronic Asset Recovery Inc. (CEAR) in Sacramento. According to Paul Gao, CEAR’s CEO, there’s literally gold and other precious metals in those heaping truckloads of pre-Pentium cyber antiques that arrive in his warehouse.

While the precious metal content of each computer is negligible, it adds up. CEAR recycles more than 50,000 old computers a year. That adds up to several pounds of gold, platinum, silver and palladium.

In business for seven years, CEAR has been a lonely presence in the Sacramento area. The changes the company has undergone reflect the unprecedented innovations that have reshaped the computer industry’s priorities since 1994.

Back then, the typical 486 was much more valuable in terms of recoverable metal. In fact, CEAR would pay government agencies and local businesses for the privilege of carting away obsolete computers, Gao remembers.

As new waves of computer models get introduced—the average new computer becomes obsolete within 18 months—the trend is toward cheaper materials, “planned obsolescence,” as Gao derisively calls it.

The use of less gold and other precious metals in computers means they will break down sooner, he says, and be less profitable to recycle. Unlike landfills and computer manufacturers, CEAR pays donors of used computers. The current going rates are: 20 cents a pound for hard drives and 20-45 cents per pound for motherboards and various circuit cards.

About 30 percent of the typical PC is composed of valuable materials. The rest, like the e-junk SPIRIT sends, must be recycled. Whereas in years past, CEAR would cull parts from old computers to be used in its own refurbishing operation and send the rest as waste to mainland China for recycling, all that has changed in the past year.

“Demanufacturing,” or taking apart computers, is a painstaking and time-consuming process. Gao admits that the only economically feasible way for CEAR to deal with the tons of useless computers that ended up in its warehouse was, before 2001, to send them to China. Chinese companies employed laborers—who hadn’t benefited like American workers from a century of struggle for economic justice—at very low wages to do this work.

Also, we knew that most of the plastic and lead ended up in landfills over there, once everything useful had been extracted, he says. The new reality for CEAR was heralded by new EPA regulations that began to be enforced in November 2001.

Monitors, the richest source of toxics among computer components, now have to be handled in compliance with much stricter procedures. The regulations mandated that monitors and televisions can no longer be deposited in landfills. More important, as far as CEAR was concerned, the Chinese government also decided to no longer allow monitors to be dumped in landfills in China.

Following strict worker safety protocols, American workers now dismantle monitors at CEAR’s Sacramento plant, and donors must pay 25 cents a pound to drop them off. On average, the typical monitor contains approximately 4 pounds of lead.

Workers remove the lead-containing cathode ray tube (CRT) as a whole from a monitor’s plastic shell. This unit then gets ground to dust. In this form, it is shipped in a sealed container to a specialty smelter, which processes the lead out of the dust.

The lead will be used to manufacture new CRTs; none ends up in a landfill. Eventually, as flat leadless monitors become the industry standard over the next few years, this aspect of the computer recycling business will be phased out.

Over the past seven years CEAR has had its niche market pretty much to itself. It has only been during the past two years or so that the obsolete computers piling up in garages and warehouses were even perceived to be a problem.

In 1999, however, according to the National Safety Council, some 24 million computers became obsolete. Compared to those kinds of numbers, the 50,000 CEAR handles annually look like a drop in the bucket.

Most computer manufacturers have yet to address the recycling problem. The Hewlett-Packard recycling facility in Roseville takes back unwanted computer junk, but charges approximately $30 per machine for this service.

If realistic alternatives to clogging landfills with toxic e-junk are to become viable, says a report recently released by the Computer Take Back Coalition, then computer manufacturers will have to participate in an integrated recycling effort. The report notes that last year both Japan and Europe passed laws requiring all computer manufacturers to take back all their old machines for free.

According to Jerry Powell, editor of E-Scrap News, a newsletter based in Portland, Oregon, no such laws are on the books anywhere in the United States. Powell notes that, at the state level, 33 legislatures debated computer-recycling bills. Only three minor measures passed.

So, for now, recycling will remain a niche market in which for-profit companies such as CEAR struggle to meet tough new guidelines and educational programs such as SPIRIT put a trickle of the flood of newly obsolete computers to use.

U.S. manufacturers may eventually catch up with their European and Japanese counterparts (and in some cases, subsidiaries) and offer efficient and low-cost take-back facilities. At least for now, concerned Sacramento-area consumers will have to go a bit out of their way to responsibly dispose of their cyber-antiques.