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Old computers can get new life through recycling

As technology develops at a seemingly exponential rate, many small firms and businesses find themselves burdened with obsolete equipment. Limited resources and overall lack of awareness, coupled with concerns for the environment, have prompted some offices to hang on to old computers rather than throw them away.

Those environmental concerns, however, are not without merit. According to statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 133,000 computers are thrown out daily. Only about 10 percent are properly recycled.

Throwing computer equipment into a landfill causes numerous environmental harms. Older-model monitors are the biggest issues. Cathode ray tubes contain large amounts of lead, which over time can leach out into the water table. A computer’s motherboard also contains heavy metals that can wreak havoc on natural resources.

“We strongly encourage people to recycle,” said Stephen Coe, director of pollution prevention and recycling at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

But up until only a few years ago, recycling drives were few and far between, and not widely publicized. And those living outside of metropolitan areas sometimes had to drive 100 miles to drop off old machines. As a result, old computers, printers and other aging office equipment migrated from the work station to the storage room, where they steadily accumulated and sat for years.

Fortunately, recycling opportunities are now much greater than they were five or six years ago, said Coe. Initiatives by the DEQ and other environmental agencies have helped boost awareness among consumers and businesses.

“From the residential perspective, computer recycling has grown each year,” Coe said. “But we’re starting to see more small companies donating. Statistics are certainly getting better.”

When computer recycling drives became more prevalent, he explained, recyclers initially received a flood of old computers. Over the past few years, though, these numbers thinned out as people became more systematic about replacing and recycling electronics. According to Coe, the computer industry is fairly sure that most homes and offices no longer have computers that are more than eight years old.

But there is a continuing need to keep the public aware of computer recycling resources. In 2008, the General Assembly passed Virginia’s Computer Recovery and Recycling Act, which requires computer manufacturers to construct an equipment recovery plan and make this recycling information available at no cost to consumers.

Meanwhile, computer manufacturers, along with participating retailers and non-profit organizations, have taken their own steps to turn old computers into new products and opportunities.

Participating Goodwill stores have partnered with Dell Inc. to offer free recycling for all computer equipment, regardless of brand or condition. Electronics retailers, including BestBuy and Office Depot, have also implemented computer takeback programs.

Once donated equipment is received at one of these locations, tech specialists evaluate each computer’s marketability.

“The two biggest factors we look for are age and processor speed,” said Lisa Parkhurst, donation manager at Computer Recycling of Virginia Inc., a statewide non-profit that refurbishes used electronics for schools and other charitable organizations.

Anything older than a Pentium 4 usually gets recycled, Parkhurst said. While some machines can be demanufactured into resalable parts, there is not much market demand for old computers.

At computer recycling facilities, workers dismantle the entire machine. According to Coe, the monitor screen is removed, and the glass and lead are sent to smelting factories to be melted down. The motherboard is shredded, and its metals are screened and sorted out. Plastics are shredded into smaller pieces and melted, then reassembled into a variety of re-usable products.

If a computer is determined to have monetary value, remanufacturers – also known as refurbishers – repair and upgrade computers for reuse or resale.

Each organization has different goals, which are typically aimed at helping both the environment and the economy. Some create jobs for disadvantaged citizens, while others provide equipment to underprivileged schools or victims of natural disasters.

Doing your part

When it comes time to replace your office electronics, do some research to find a reputable computer recycling company or non-profit organization that meets your firm’s specific needs. If it’s inconvenient to drop off your computers at the recycler’s warehouse, for example, find an organization that will pick up the equipment at your office.

Additionally, determine the type of equipment that’s accepted, as specifications may vary from organization to organization. Some recyclers have a maximum number of drop-offs per day, and others carry a charge for certain types of equipment.

It’s also important to find out a recycler’s policies on protecting your hard drive data. Some companies handle data destruction, but some recommend wiping the hard drive before you donate the equipment (See accompanying article for details).

The DEQ provides a list of local computer recyclers and refurbishers at www.deq.virginia.gov/recycle. You may also want to check periodically for local computer recycling drives.

While many larger companies already participate in asset recovery programs, there are plenty of opportunities available to small firms and businesses. When purchasing new equipment, try to work out a deal with the retailer, putting them in charge of removing and recycling the old equipment. Also, consider buying equipment that’s the most efficient and easy to recycle when it comes time for the next upgrade.

As for the future of electronic recycling, there is plenty of good news. The industry, surprisingly enough, is being driven by European law, which requires that new machines meet strict environmental standards.

“Computers are being manufactured to be as green as they can be,” said Coe. “They’re more energy efficient and environmentally benign.”

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