Hewlett-Packard 'e-Cyclers' Internet-age Gold Miners

Electronic cast-offs and their toxic wastse are saved from landfills.

In a vast warehouse near California's capital, Hewlett-Packard workers mine for Internet-age gold while diverting toxic electronic waste from landfills. The company is ramping up operations in Roseville, where its shredders and chippers rip up everything from mobile telephones to copy machines and salvage usable scraps. Yellowed newspaper clippings of "e-waste" dump sites in rural China are tacked to walls of a workshop where HP's goal is to keep discarded technological devices and their toxic components out of the ground. "It's a lot like old fashioned gold mining," HP employee Tatyana Kjellberg said at the facility last week.

A football field sized loading dock is stacked high with computer monitors, printers, and servers collected in just one day. Those discards of Internet-age life await deconstruction as conveyor belts, rotating blades and magnets crush and sift endless streams of junk flowing into huge plastic bins bound for a smelter. HP calls the process "product minimization." Computer components arrive on the dock and are dismantled by hand. The pieces are sent through a series of machines that break them down incrementally until all that remains are mounds of plastic, steel, and aluminum in two-centimeter chunks.

HP is ramping up a recycling effort it began with a parts return program in 1987. "We'd take the usable parts out of products and send them on for reuse, but then we were left with all these carcasses," HP recycling operations manager Ken Turner said.

The company will accept any electronic device made by any manufacturer.

In 2006, HP globally recycled 74 million kilograms of e-waste, a mass equivalent to 600 jumbo jets. The Roseville plant alone accounts for nearly two million kilograms every month.

As technology increasingly pervades cultures worldwide, and product lifecycles shorten, there is growing urgency for intensive e-cycling operations, according to environmental groups. The U.S. is the world's e-waste giant, responsible for nearly two billion kilograms of technology trash annually, a 300% increase in the past decade. Television sets account for 40% e-waste by weight, followed by computer monitors, cell phones, and then desktop and laptop computers, according to the EPA. The bulk of the technology trash lands in developing nations such as China, according to Greenpeace.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007

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