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Recycle old technology after the holidays

PC World
person sweeping up computer parts
A pile of computer and other electronic parts is swept up at a recycling facility  

(IDG) -- Did a new PC, handheld, or printer pop into your home as a holiday present? Before you settle into enjoying your new technology, take a minute to think about what will happen to the old.

And, if you are like most in the family, you already have a heap of outdated, unused PC equipment in your attic, garage, or office storeroom. So what do you do with it?

Finding a use for old equipment is not only a matter of whether you have room for discards. According to study by the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center, some 100 million PCs, monitors, and TVs are expected to become obsolete annually by 2005 in the United States alone.

H. Scott Matthews, research director for the Green Design Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, says that his organization's research projects that 50 million old computers are expected to be landfilled by 2005--a smaller number, but not a lesser problem.

"We found that the equipment is not going to landfills in the volume we thought they would," Matthews says. "But the problem isn't solved. It's delayed. People aren't throwing the equipment away. They're storing their computers. Even here, where we know better, we have rooms full of computers."

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Matthews says it is a value perception problem. "Most people don't understand the value that a computer has over its life," he says. "They compare a PC's depreciation to that of a car, which they understand better, but computers lose a lot more in the first several months after purchase and don't last as long."

The irony of the problem, he says, is that the day you decide to upgrade is the day to decide what to do with the old one. "Every day you wait, it loses value and rapidly becomes worthless."

"Here at the Green Design Initiative, we're concerned that most will go to landfills," Matthews says. "Remember that the environment is the ultimate sink." And when PCs, laptops, monitors, printers, cell phones, and televisions go to landfills, it's a messy environmental proposition. In fact, the state of Massachusetts already bans the discard of TVs and PC monitors due to the high levels of lead in the devices, which are released into the ecosystem when the cathode ray tubes are crushed or burned rather than recycled. Other hazardous materials in technology equipment include cadmium and mercury, among others.

"Think outside the box as to what to do with these things," Matthews urges. "When you run out of family members to pass things on to, don't store them--recycle them."

Help out nonprofits

A new effort from IBM provides an easy way to recycle high-tech trash. Six weeks ago, IBM announced a technology-recycling program specifically aimed at individual consumers and small business owners. For $29.99, which includes shipping, IBM will take PC parts and machines from any maker and either recycle it safely or get useable equipment into the hands of a non-profit organization that can use it. Information on the PC Recycling Service is available at 1-888-746-7426 or at the IBM Web site.

Useable equipment will be refurbished and donated to Gifts in Kind International (GIKI), which contributes to a network of over 50,000 nonprofit organizations in neighborhoods throughout the world. Donors will receive a receipt for potential deduction on their annual federal tax return up to the amount allowed by law. Non-useable PCs will be disposed of in environmentally responsible manner.

Laura Wessner, IBM's manager of corporate communications, says once the consumer or small business owner makes arrangements to get a UPS mailing label, "we'll take any make of PC, laptop, monitor, or printer, as much as will fit into a reasonably sized box." The equipment goes to Envirocycle, Inc., in Halstead, Pennsylvania, a designated recycling center. Currently, Pentium I CPUs or newer are eligible for donation. Older CPUs will be recycled.

IBM, which already had a recycling program in place for larger clients, said it recycled more than 120 million pounds of equipment parts and machines in 1999, with less than 4 percent deemed unsalvageable or non-recyclable. "We expanded the program because we felt there was a real need for it." Wessner says. "As technology innovation gets faster and faster, PC equipment gets obsolete quicker and quicker."

Additionally, the Green Design Initiative maintains a resource list for information on how to dispose of unwanted or out-of-date electronic products.

Good home for old tech

Another great place to get a good home for old equipment is at the Computers for Schools Association, based in Chicago, which has affiliated programs in 34 states. Its president, Willie Cade, says his organization refurbishes useable equipment and gets it directly into public schools in the United States and Canada. "We say when you get something new, put your old one in that box and send it to us," he says. "That gets rid of the PC and the cardboard at the same time."

Cade said he hopes donations will step up once the just-passed federal Millennium Classroom Act increases tax benefits for donating to schools and libraries and extends the age of eligible computer equipment.

Computers for Schools already has worked out some innovative ways to increase ease of donation. For instance, in Utah, Cade says, all a resident has to do is take old equipment in a box to any bank in the state, where it will be delivered by UPS to the local branch of his organization at no cost to the consumer.

He explained that the federal E-Rate program, the Clinton administration program that wired low-income and rural public schools with Internet connections, does not pay for PCs to connect into the wiring, and most public school systems don't have funding to buy new equipment. "We've gotten 100,000 recycled PCs into U.S. schools and 250,000 in Canada, where they do have government funding," Cade says. "I'm so jealous of Canada, I can't stand it."

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