E-Business Commentary -- PC Makers: Haul Your Own Trash

Dec. 21, 2004
Pressures mount for recycling, reuse, and design for the environment.

It's official. All those personal-computer manufacturers who thought they were going to ride off into the sunset after the hundreds of millions of machines they built over the years turned up in landfills had better think again. The reasons are as plain as the letters on your cathode-ray-tube screen. For one, the State of California's Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (i.e., the Golden State's EPA) ruled last March that computer monitors and televisions can no longer be dumped in landfills. Then in May the European Union parliament passed a law requiring manufacturers of electrical and electronic equipment to reduce hazardous substances and pay for the recycling of their products. Government rulings and legislation certainly are one way to make manufacturers step up to the plate in the global competition to design more environmentally friendly products. In the world of PCs, where faster chips come along every few months, these machines become obsolete within a few years at most. Today, anything with less horsepower than a Pentium chip is basically your own toxic paperweight. Passed despite powerful opposition from computer and electronics firms, the new EU law requires producers to pay for recycling their obsolete products, as well as for collecting waste equipment from households. It also mandates companies to aggressively pursue design for the environment, and to phase out the use of toxic materials in their products. That's not happening here, you say? Not yet. California generally serves as a harbinger of regulations to come, and once states begin prohibiting disposal of PCs in landfills, the jig will be up for PC makers. If buyers can't dispose of a product, then the only other possible courses are reuse or recycling -- solutions for which the corporations that designed and built these machines should be responsible. Will PC makers step up to the plate willingly? Or will they go kicking and screaming? My guess is, because this is an economic issue, most will go the latter route. It's a lot cheaper and easier to lobby the heck out of state governments and Washington to mitigate any fiscal responsibility. Let the buyers pay. The high-tech industry claims to be clean and green, but take a look sometime at the list of toxic substances that make up that box on your desk. Not all manufacturers are resisting going green, though. Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) is an exception. For years, the $48.8 billion manufacturer of computers, printers, and other devices has provided purchasers of its printer cartridges a free recycling service via return boxes and labels that need only be turned over to UPS. There are no charges to the returning party, either for shipping or recycling. HP isn't new to the recycling game. Together with $7 billion mining and metals giant Noranda Inc., the high-tech manufacturer operates a huge recycling plant in Roseville, Calif., outside Sacramento. Each month this facility processes close to 4 million pounds of used equipment from its own offices as well as from other corporations. Last May HP initiated a fee-based, take-back and recycling service. The idea is to give businesses and consumers a way to get rid of their old computers and electronic equipment without sending it to landfills. HP, which is charging up to $30 per computer, picks up machines, evaluates them for reuse or donation, or for recycling, with fees based on quantity and type of product. IBM Corp. has launched a similar recycling program. Some environmental groups say manufacturers shouldn't charge for the recycling service. The critics believe manufacturers should take full responsibility for their products. But HP is assuming responsibility for recycling the products of other manufacturers, not just its own. What's more, recycling something as complex as a PC is more nightmare than walk in the park. Computers contain myriad kinds of plastic that must be separated from each other as well as from other materials such as lead and arsenic compounds. Recycling PCs is expensive in the short term. But throwing them away is more expensive in the long run. Imagine dumping 120 million PCs -- the number of machines expected to become obsolete in the next few years -- in a bay in Alaska. The cumulative effect on the environment would make the Exxon Valdez incident look puny by comparison. Sure, HP's offer is no freebie. But how many companies are stepping up to the plate to take a swing at recycling their -- and others' -- electronic trash?

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!