Amid a garden made of plastic computer housings, wiring, and circuit boards, Irene Smith is planting seeds. Smith, an instructor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education, toils in the field of high-tech recycling, not only keeping computer waste out of landfills but also planting in young minds the idea of eco-friendly electronics.

She does it by showing teachers-in-training the complex problem that computer gear poses when it reaches obsolescence, a lesson they can take to the next generation of technology users when they student-teach.

“Second-, third-, and fourth-grade students are starting to understand eWaste,” Smith said as she stood amid tables piled with the remains of old computers and processors.

eWaste–old computers and printers–is the electronic detritus of an increasingly technology-dependent society. For the most part, such equipment was never designed to be taken apart, much less recycled, yet it’s being hauled off to landfills at the rate of millions of pieces a year.

But not at the University of Oregon (UO).

A 2-year-old computer-harvesting program fishes old computers out of the university’s waste stream and recycles almost everything but the plastic cases, which in the United States have no place to go but the dump.

“In 2002, more than 70 percent of all obsolete computer equipment was thrown into landfills,” Smith said. “That’s scary. That’s millions of pieces. All I can say is thank God we weren’t one of [the contributors].”

Smith has touted the program to Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, the leader of the Oregon State Sustainability Initiative, who was on campus recently.

The program has dealt with almost 1,000 monitors, 1,380 processors, and 385 printers by stripping them of parts that can be resold or reused, creating enough material to fill 141 pallets.

That adds up to 6-and-a-half tons of lead-containing cathode ray tubes from computer monitors sent to recycling plants, about 5 tons of ferrous and nonferrous metals sent to area smelters, and uncounted miles of wire, power cords, and cables reclaimed for their copper.

Students in Smith’s classes are in the five-year teaching program that leads to a master’s degree with a technology emphasis. Once they’ve learned to strip computers down to their basic elements, they go back to the schools where they share that knowledge with their elementary school classes.

Kids not only love to take things apart, Smith said, they also show a keen understanding about the environmental downside of technology. She said they seem to understand intuitively the dangers of throwaway components.

“These students at the elementary level are really concerned,” Smith said. “You hear a great deal more concern about recycling from that student level than from my student level.”

Demonstrating the process for Bradbury, Smith reduced a computer monitor to scrap in just a few minutes. A few screws took care of the plastic housing, then out came circuit boards, wires, and the plastic yoke at the back of the display unit that contains many feet of copper wire that can’t be separated from the plastic.

Bradbury was impressed with both the size of the problem and the university’s attempt at a solution.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said of the amount of electronics headed for landfills, “but it absolutely should not stop us. It’s a huge challenge and a huge opportunity to efficiently de-manufacture these computer products.”

The next step is to see whether the UO program can be expanded to other state universities and even to state government. Nick Williams, the UO’s environmental manager, said it hurts that none of the recyclables are worth any money.

UO has to pay companies to take things such as circuit boards, plastic-insulated wires, and metal. He didn’t have specific cost figures but said the materials don’t bring in any revenue to offset the recovery costs.

Manufacturers are slowly getting the message and building more environmentally friendly equipment. The plastic housings on new Apple computers now are recyclable, for example, addressing one of the largest eWaste problems.

But there are still millions of pieces of obsolete equipment out there, filling closets, basements, and storage rooms across the country.

“I keep saying it’s got to slow down, but it doesn’t,” Smith said. But she called her own efforts at UO “a start.”

Links:

University of Oregon’s College of Education
http://education.uoregon.edu