Inside Hewlett-Packard Co.’s cavernous recycling plant in the Sacramento suburbs, truckloads of obsolete PCs, servers, and printers collected from consumers and businesses nationwide are cracked open by goggled workers who pull out batteries, circuit boards, and other potentially hazardous components.
The electronic carcasses are fed into a massive machine that noisily shreds them into tiny pieces and mechanically sorts the fragments into piles of steel, aluminum, plastic, and precious metals. Those scraps are sent to smelting plants, mostly in the Sacramento area, where they are melted down for reuse.
The computer industry is ramping up its campaign against electronic waste, a dangerous byproduct of technology’s relentless expansion.
HP and Dell Inc., which together sell more than half the country’s PCs, are earning praise from environmentalists for using more eco-friendly components and recycling their products when consumers discard them. But every major computer manufacturer now has some sort of computer recovery and recycling program available for its customers.
"The computer companies are definitely embracing the idea that they need to deal with their products at the end of their useful life," said Barbara Kyle, who coordinates the San Francisco-based nonprofit Computer TakeBack Campaign. "There’s been a complete turnaround."
Still, activists say far too much of the nation’s electronic garbage–not only PCs but also TVs, radios, batteries, and other materials–ends up in landfills or gets shipped overseas to poor countries, where it pollutes the environment and exposes workers to dangerous chemicals.
"The United States is not responsibly managing this waste stream," said Sarah Westervelt of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based group that seeks to stop the spread of hazardous waste. "We’re allowing it to go offshore and poison developing countries."
The push to recycle reflects a broader greening of the tech industry.
In addition to recycling and eliminating toxic chemicals, more companies are making their products energy efficient, using eco-friendly packaging and offsetting their carbon emissions to curb global warming.
"This focus is good for business," said Carl Claunch, a computer industry analyst at the technology research company Gartner Inc. "There’s a growing pool of customers who value environmentally friendly products."
Still, eWaste is a growing environmental and public health concern as the world becomes more wired and companies introduce new products at a faster pace.
Discarded computers, televisions, radios, batteries, cell phones, cameras, and other gadgets contain a stew of toxic metals and chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says American consumers generated nearly 2 million tons of electronic waste in 2005. Gartner estimates that 133,000 PCs are discarded by U.S. homes, schools, and businesses each day. Yet only between 10 and 15 percent of electronics are currently recycled, industry analysts say. The rest collects dust in people’s homes or gets dumped into municipal landfills, where environmentalists worry toxic chemicals can leak out.
Among the eWaste that is recycled, activists say, up to 80 percent is exported overseas to dismantling shops where poor workers are exposed to hazardous fumes and chemicals while trying to extract valuable metals and components.
Researchers for Greenpeace International have detected high levels of toxic metals in soil and water samples collected around electronics-dismantling workshops in China and India.
A growing number of countries and states are requiring electronics companies to take responsibility for recycling their products. Japan, South Korea, and most European countries now require electronics manufacturers to pay for and manage recycling programs for their products.
There is no such federal law in the United States, but Washington, Maine, and Maryland recently passed "take-back" laws and about a dozen other states are considering such legislation.
California made it illegal to throw away nearly all electronic products last year, but the state doesn’t require manufacturers to take back their products. Instead, when consumers buy electronics, they pay fees to cover the cost of recycling those products later.
eWaste advocates are pushing the idea of "producer responsibility," because it gives companies an incentive to make their devices more environmentally friendly.
"It’s essential that manufacturers think through the end of life of their products," said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace’s toxics campaign. "No matter how they recycle, it doesn’t matter if there are still toxic materials in their computers."
Among computer manufacturers, Dell–the No. 2 PC maker behind HP–has emerged as a leader in electronics recycling. The Round Rock, Texas-based company has pledged to phase out certain toxic chemicals. Dell began offering free recycling for all its products in December.
Chairman and CEO Michael Dell challenged the industry to follow his company’s lead in his keynote address at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, saying, "It’s the right thing to do for our customers. It’s the right thing to do for our earth."
The company reportedly recovered 80 million pounds of equipment in 2005. Some computers are refurbished and resold–possibly overseas–while parts or materials are recycled within the U.S. if equipment can’t be fixed, said Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton.
"Our goal is to make it as easy to recycle a computer as it is to buy one," said Hilton, adding that the company’s electronic waste isn’t shipped overseas.
Dell’s recycling service, in which the company will collect used machines directly from a school site at no charge, offers educators a huge convenience.
"Educational institutions traditionally don’t have robust logistics capabilities within their communities and need the service of actually coming on site, collecting the equipment, consolidating the equipment, and transporting the equipment," says Tod Arbogast, director of sustainable business for Dell.
HP reportedly recycled 164 million pounds of hardware and print cartridges globally last year, 16 percent more than the previous year. In the U.S., the company reports recycling about 50 million pounds at its plants in Roseville, Calif., and Nashville, Tenn., and says it doesn’t send any of that waste stream to landfills or overseas.
Since it began recycling 20 years ago, Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP has set out to design products that last longer and are easy to recycle, said John Frey, who manages the company’s environmental strategies.
HP still charges for recycling, but consumers get a coupon that goes toward the purchase of new products. The company also organizes collection drives at retail stores where consumers can drop off old gear for free.
"Being environmentally responsible makes sense for our business–it affects brand loyalty and how customers view us," Frey said.
HP’s recycling service ranges from $13 to $34 per item, depending on the type and quantity of the devices in question. Schools and other customers can get a free quote from HP’s web site.
CDW-G offers a similar fee-based service, in which the company takes away the old hardware, installs the new hardware, and makes sure the old equipment is disposed of properly. A certificate of environmental compliance is given to schools after the recycling has taken place, says Vic Berger, a technologist with CDW-G. A growing number of states now require institutions to have disposal plans in place before replacing old technology, Berger explained.
But the problem is far wider than just computers.
Activists are focusing more attention on televisions, which make up an increasingly large share of the world’s electronic waste. As more Americans switch to flat-panel TVs, they are throwing out clunky cathode-ray tube sets that contain large amounts of lead.
"The TV industry needs to step up and create some takeback programs," Kyle said. "Ultimately, they must design their stuff in a way that makes them easier to recycle."
Computer TakeBack Campaign
Dell and the Environment
HP: Environmental Sustainability