Two hundred thirty-four million pounds of computers were recycled in 1998. This total included 73 million pounds of computer peripherals, 59 million pounds of personal computers, 56 million pounds of mainframes and 46 million pounds of cathode ray tube monitors, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER). We can be sure that more scrap was recycled in 1999 and that the total will rise again this year.
The reason: Computer life spans are shrinking as manufacturers improve their technology. According to the “Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report” of the National Safety Council, Itasca, Ill., personal computers manufactured in 1999 had an expected life span of 3.1 years. This will shrink to about two years by 2005. By comparison, monitors had an average four- to seven-year life span in 1999, while printers and scanners were expected to last three to five years.
Many hazardous materials
Computers and peripherals contain many hazardous materials. The glass in monitors, for example, contains lead, which can leach into the soil and groundwater. Printed wiring boards contain lead, mercury and cadmium.
While the materials in a computer can be recycled, the dismantling cost to reclaim 100% of salvageable materials is prohibitive at today’s wages. Recyclers are solving this problem in different ways.
As we write, it is legal to dispose of computers in landfills. But Massachusetts was preparing legislation in January to ban computers from municipal dumps and several other states are expected to follow. Corporations can be held liable for heavy cleanup costs if their electronic discar ds are found in a landfill that becomes a Superfund site. Computers and their components are identified with serial numbers that are easy to trace.
“An owner’s liability for discarded computers can be minimized if he makes a strategic alliance with a Certified Electronics Recycler,” says Peter Muscanelli, administrator of the IAER.
Muscanelli acknowledges that electronics recycling is a young industry that is still on a learning curve. Because there are wide variations among recycling firms, the industry has created certification programs to establish best practices. One of these is recycling all parts of the computer.
“Certification will raise quality standards throughout the industry,” says Muscanelli. “We want to keep electronic scrap out of landfills.”
What to do?
Outdated computers are assets which should be disposed of in a way that maximizes financial benefit, minimizes liability and does no harm to the environment. Plant professionals should be careful how they proceed and who they deal with.
A corporation can sell old computers to a dealer who refurbishes and resells them. Here, says Muscanelli, the owner’s liability may continue, but it can be minimized by keeping good records and selling the computers to firms that are dedicated to resale or 100% recycling. Giving computers to charity means a tax deduction and good public relations, but Muscanelli states that a user could be held liable if the charity later discards that computer in a landfill. “To minimize liability, have the charity acknowledge the gift in writing and keep careful records of serial numbers,” he says.
Muscanelli adds that not-for-profit organizations usually want desktop units and have little use for mainframes or industrially hardened models. The owner will have to dispose of these materials separately.
Zero landfill means zero liability
Rich Campbell, director of corporate relations for DMC The Electronics Recycling Company, says that his firm processes 750,000 pounds of electronic scrap every week at its Newfields, N.H. and Hagerstown, Md. locations. Ten percent of the scrap is resold and the remaining 90% is recycled. Nothing is landfilled, says Campbell, who claims that DMC’s customers will not have a Superfund liability.
“We recycle all kinds of electronics — anything with a plug,” Campbell continues. “We have many large customers, including the U.S. government, which sends us all types of obsolete electronics, and Fortune 500 firms, which ship us mainframes and desktops.”
Seven hundred chemicals are used in a computer, including precious metals, aluminum, steel and copper, according to Campbell. “We demanufacture electronic scrap and recycle everything using a lot of hand labor,” he says. “Our unique chip removal equipment makes us one of the few electronics recycling companies that’s capable of economically removing and reselling circuit board components,” he continues. “Our customers get tracking reports, which show that nothing is landfilled, so their liability is zero.” DMC charges clients a per-pound fee for recycling their electronic scrap.
DMC serves the U.S. east of the Mississippi, but plans to add seven locations during the next two years to become a national firm. “We’re the only computer recycler that’s ISO-14001 registered, for which we had to meet very high standards,” Campbell says.
There may be a middle ground between paying a firm such as DMC or selling to a scrap dealer. Some recyclers pay a small sum for discarded electronic equipment and refurbish and resell what they can. Then they salvage metals that can be recovered at reasonable cost and ship the computer carcasses to low-labor-cost countries in the Far East for further processing. If any part of those computers ends up in a Far East landfill, the original purchaser is presumably free from liability under U.S. law.
Another alternative, called “take back”, is under consideration in Europe. Essentially a lease program, it requires the computer manufacturer to take back outmoded equipment when the user is finished with it.
The United States recycling industry is following the European developments closely. Meanwhile, it is working to develop an effective, efficient infrastructure for electronics recycling.