With the influx of new computer equipment into the nation’s schools, district officials face a new and perplexing problem: what to do with piles of broken or obsolete electronic equipment.

Several states—most notably Massachusetts, in March of this year—have passed laws banning computer equipment from landfills. That means districts that used to put their old CPUs, monitors, and peripherals out on the curb for the trash collector have to come up with creative solutions to deal with an increasing amount of obsolete, broken, or unusable equipment.

According to Bill Sheehan, director of the Grassroots Recycling Network in Athens, Ga., “There is more toxic material in computers than most people realize—five or six pounds of lead in monitors. If that goes into a landfill and seeps into the groundwater, it can cause mental retardation and other serious health problems.”

If significant amounts of lead were to enter the water supply, it could cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood system, and kidneys in humans, environmentalists say.

Cadmium, which can be found in chip resistors, infrared detectors, semiconductors, and older types of cathode ray tubes, easily can accumulate in amounts that could cause symptoms of poisoning. And the mercury found in batteries, switches, housing, and printed wiring boards also can cause chronic damage to the brain, according to environmental watchdog groups.

Accountability and environmental sustainability are now becoming watchwords for school technologists, who suddenly are forced to deal with an issue that used to fall under the jurisdiction of grounds and maintenance.

Said Pat Hartley, technology director for Evergreen School District in Washington, “There are good reasons why you can’t just throw computer equipment away. First, the landfills won’t take it anymore, and then there are political issues that arise if a school just discards old equipment. We’ve had to find other solutions.”

The problem

According to a report from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), “Most consumers are unaware of the toxic materials in the products they rely on for word processing, data management, and access to the internet.”

SVTC is a nonprofit organization consisting of environmental and neighborhood groups, labor unions, public health leaders, and people affected by toxic exposure.

The SVTC web site explains that computer equipment can contain more than 1,000 materials, many of which are highly toxic, such as chlorinated and brominated substances, toxic gases, toxic metals, biologically active materials, acids, plastics, and plastic additives.

According to the organization, the health impact of these products often is not known, but all signs point to dangerous levels of toxicity in computer waste. Furthermore, the rapid pace of computer development enhances the problem.

“The fundamental dynamism of computer manufacturing that has transformed life in the second half of the 20th century—especially the speed of innovation—also leads to rapid product obsolescence. The average computer platform has a lifespan of less than two years, and hardware and software companies—especially Intel and Microsoft—constantly generate new programs that fuel the demand for more speed, memory, and power,” says the SVTC site.

Simply put, because computers become out of date so fast, there are a lot of them waiting to be disposed of.

According to Joe Ferson, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), disposal of computer waste “is one area of specific concern, because the lifespan of a computer is less than the lifespan of most technology containing cathode-ray tubes. Most people will keep their television set longer than their computer.”

SVTC points out that it is often cheaper and more convenient to buy new computer technology than it is to spend time and money upgrading old equipment. According to the organization, “Three-quarters of all computers ever bought in the U.S. are sitting in people’s attics and basements because they don’t know what to do with them.”

There are also political concerns regarding old equipment.

“At Evergreen, we have very high computing standards, and we don’t deal with anything that’s not a Pentium or better,” said technology director Hartley. “But it is hard for a school district to turn away a donation from a community member, so we usually accept what they give us, knowing we will just have to turn around and get rid of it.”

Mary Miller is the district recycling coordinator for Pasco County Schools in Florida. “Some districts are just stockpiling computers in storage because they have to find a way to dispose of them as hazardous waste,” she said.

“The biggest challenge for schools is disposing of the old equipment in away that the community finds acceptable and responsible,” explained Hartley. “Believe me, we try and squeeze every drop out of our computers. High-tech companies change computers every 30 months. The average age of instructional computers at Evergreen is five years … The community has to accept the idea that technology does not last forever. It can really be a political nightmare.”

And dealing with old and broken equipment costs schools both time and money.

“It is really a lot of work to deal with. In order to ‘surplus out’ equipment at a school, that school has to send me a ‘disposition of property’ form, and we have to arrange to have it picked up,” Miller said. “You would not believe how much of it we deal with. Just about every day, a request comes across my desk to have some computer equipment picked up.”

Agreed Hartley, “We figure it costs between $75 and $150 to take a computer out of service. We have to take out the hard drive and demagnetize it so that no personal or sensitive information remains on it, which takes manpower, and then we have to store the old units somewhere.”

Solution one: auctioning

One possible solution for school technologists faced with dwindling budgets and looming piles of obsolete equipment is to auction off old computers to bidders in the community.

In 1998, eSchool News reported how the Arlington, Texas, School District raised $24,000 selling off old 386s and 486s to local families who could not afford newer models.

Texas auctioneer Tommy Lutes, who has been providing auctioning services to local school districts for decades, said a district like Arlington normally can bring in around $20,000 from a computer auction.

In 1998, Arlington did much better than the $15,000 it was anticipating, he said. Another area system, Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District, raised nearly $40,000 in an auction that year.

The majority of old equipment in Florida’s Pasco County Schools has been auctioned off over the last several years, according to technology director Miller. But what has worked in the past may not be a viable option much longer, she fears.

“The computers are so worn out by the time we send them that they can only be used for scrap, and our auctioneer does not want them, because he can’t sell them,” Miller said. “It has been increasingly difficult for our auctioneer to get rid of [the equipment] because the stuff we give him is either really obsolete or it has been cannibalized for parts.”

Florida was one of the first states to ban certain organizations from disposing of old computer equipment in landfills.

“It is a state law that our old computer equipment is considered hazardous waste because, as a school district, we are considered a ‘small quantity generator,'” Miller said. “A homeowner does not fall into that category, so they can throw their old televisions and equipment away, but we can’t.”

Evergreen’s Hartley says his district has always found takers for the old equipment—until recently, that is. He believes Evergreen will have to turn to a new solution for disposing of its old equipment in the near future.

“I think we will have to recycle soon because we will have no other choice,” he said. “Until now, we’ve found organizations willing to take our old stuff.”

Pasco County Schools also is considering the recycling option.

“We are looking at recycling, and I’ve collected some price quotes. I’m going to recommend to the school board that we recycle our equipment from now on,” Miller said. “If this works out, we hope to go with a local company that will do the recycling free of charge. This company will break the computers all the way down and make new computers out of the old materials. There is minimal hassle, because they come to pick [the machines] up.”

Solution two: recycling

There are several organizations willing to help schools with the disposal of old computers and peripherals.

One such group is the Computer Recycling Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. The center’s web site boasts that it “accepts all computer hardware of any age, working or not (yes, everything) and packaged/sealed software from individuals and companies.”

The Computer Recycling Center says its primary goal is “to keep electronic items out of the landfill, reuse the best, and recycle the rest.”

Organizations that donate old computer hardware or telecommunications equipment get a tax-deductible, 501(c)(3) charitable receipt from the center. This might be a consideration for some private schools.

According to Hartley, Evergreen likely will turn to an organization similar to the Computer Recycling Center in the future.

“In Oregon, a few hours away, there are recycling centers that take computers. They strip them down and send the parts overseas, where they are completely broken down and reused. It is just not cost-effective to pay someone to do that in the United States,” he explained.

Said Bill Sheehan of the Grassroots Recycling Network, “There are a lot of options that are state-specific or city-specific where [schools] can take their old computers.”

In states such as Massachusetts, where some computer equipment is totally banned from landfills, local organizations usually pay to have their equipment recycled.

“There are contracts schools can use that are state-subsidized,” said EPA’s Ferson. “I can’t say what it would cost, because cost depends on the amount of equipment being disposed of and what it is.”

The Grassroots Recycling Network, in conjunction with groups such as SVTC, is working on fundamental solutions to the problem of computer waste disposal.

“We want extended producer responsibility for waste, but there is a really strong resistance to it in the American business world,” Sheehan said. “We are way behind Europe and other countries. In this country, the producers just make whatever they want, and the local government and taxpayers pay what it takes to deal with the product at the end of its life. The taxpayer is really left holding the bag.”

Too true, agree officials at SVTC.

“In 1998 only six percent of computers were recycled, compared to the number of new computers put on the market that year. By the year 2004, experts estimate that we will have over 315 million obsolete computers in the U.S., many of which will be destined for landfills, incinerators, or hazardous waste exports,” states the SVTC web site.

The European Union is developing legislation, including “take-back” requirements and toxic materials phase-outs, that encourages cleaner product design and less waste. “To date no such initiative has occurred in North America and, in fact, the U.S. Trade Representative—at the request of the American electronics trade associations—is currently lobbying against this European Union initiative,” SVTC officials said.

Solution three: refurbishment

There are a few solutions outside of recycling that could extend the life of older computers or make them reusable.

“We can repurpose old equipment by saying, ‘This can no longer be a network computer, but we can still use it as a stand-alone machine for one program,'” Hartley suggests. “But there will still be the cost of finding replacement parts for older computers.”

Hartley also notes that Evergreen sometimes sends older computers to its vocational education department, where students break them down into parts and put them back together until they can’t be used any more.

“But, then again, we are still faced with what to do with the old parts,” he said.

Another option he suggested was using old equipment as a “thin client,” where all the actual computing goes on in a server and the user only sees pictures of those processes displayed on the older unit. Thin-client computing would enable school technologists to run advanced programs on computers that otherwise are incapable of handling them.

“Also, districts sometimes can give old equipment away to the community. We hope to be able to hold one-day refurbishment sessions where the recipients come in for a day and help refurbish the computers, then get to buy them at the end of the day for $1,” Hartley said.

Organizations that accept donations of older, broken machines sometimes can rebuild the donated machines and place them back into needy schools.

One Cleveland-area group, Computers for Education, does just that, with the bulk of its more than 4,000 refurbished computers going to inner-city schools.

That organization charges a small fee for reworked computers, depending on the quality of the refurbished machine. But, according to the group’s Kenneth Kovatch, all machines they sell are internet-ready and backed by a one-year warranty.

Even with a number of options available to educators, some fear the problems that come with keeping school networks up to date and responsibly disposing of outdated or broken machines have only just begun to surface.

Said Miller, “We’ve been hearing for something like three years that dealing with old computer equipment will be a very big issue, and now that time has come.”

Links:

Arlington Independent School District
http://www.arlington.k12.tx.u

Computer Recycling Center
http://www.crc.org

Evergreen School District
http://www.egreen.wednet.edu

Grassroots Recycling Network
http://www.grrn.org

Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District
http://www.hebisd.edu

Pasco County Schools
http://www.pasco.k12.fl.us/department.html

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
http://www.svtc.org