E-Commentary -- Computer Makers Tackle E-Waste

Dec. 21, 2004
PC manufacturers catch recycling bug.

After two decades of sticking their heads in a pile of silicon when it came to environmental concerns, manufacturers of personal computers have finally gotten a whiff of their own waste at low tide -- and it stinks. "Over the last year, more than half the states have introduced some kind of electronic waste legislation," says Ted Smith, president and founder of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an environmentalist group based in San Jose, Calif. Not surprisingly, companies such as IBM Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are accelerating efforts to recycle their products. The typical PC gets used just three to five years, according to IT research firm International Data Corp. By then, most PCs have either become technologically stale or, as computer actuaries predict, soon suffer hard-drive failure. In your car, that's like having a piston seize up. The catch here is that you can't just dump your high-tech trash in a landfill anymore. That's because PCs contain harmful or environmentally unfriendly substances ranging from chromium to arsenic, to lead and mercury, to cadmium and PVC. And consumers have accumulated an estimated 315 million of these old hulks out there, ready to be junked by 2004, according to one estimate. "This industry," an industrial design professor told me, "is making garbage faster than they know what to do with." Hewlett-Packard (HP) has a worldwide "product takeback" team that does nothing but try to figure out solutions to this problem. The PC manufacturer operates a huge recycling facility in Roseville, Calif., and another in Nashville, where close to 4 million pounds of used up or obsolete PCs, monitors and printers from any manufacturer -- not just HP -- are dismantled and recycled annually. HP charges consumers from $13 to $30 depending on the item, shipping included. Similarly, IBM recycles computers from both consumers and corporations, either rebuilding them for donation to charities or recycling the parts and materials. Even so, IBM admits that at the end of the day, nearly 4% of all the worn-out computer gear it takes in has no use and is discarded in landfills. Dell, which was already doing some recycling, got e-waste religion last July. That's when a caravan of pickup trucks stuffed with old Dell computers completed a "Hard Drive Across the West" from Seattle and San Francisco to Austin. Arriving just in time for Dell's shareholders' meeting, activists displayed signs reading, "Dell Computer should clean up their toxic electronics waste." Dell is trying. The company charges a minimal $7.50 to pick up and recycle up to 50 pounds of computers, no matter the brand. "With our direct sales model, we were able to partner with the same outbound shippers to return used PCs," says Pat Nathan, sustainable business director for Dell. The company uses two outside firms to recycle the old machines. "None of the machines can be landfilled or exported to third-world countries," adds Nathan. Gateway, which offers up to $50 in rebates to consumers who recycle an old PC before purchasing a new one, depends on local recycling programs. "The rebate provides an incentive for people to handle their electronic waste responsibly," says a Gateway spokesman. In California, consumers buying PCs now must pay a fee of $6 to $10 to fund municipal recycling programs. But some environmentalists and manufacturers say this plan offers manufacturers no incentives to improve their designs for the environment. Says Kevin Farnam, manager of corporate environmental strategies and sustainability at HP, "We believe that if you keep the manufacturers engaged so that they have responsibility for their products, they will make them more environmentally friendly." Doug Bartholomew is a former IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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