My 9/23/07 Missoulian column: It’s easy to recycle and reuse computer equipment
When I started writing about computer recycling for this week, I remembered when I worked as a computer technician at the University of Montana. My department had a bunch of old PC’s to get rid of, stashed in a closet as they weren’t usable at all, even though they were maybe six years old. UM already had a big basement full of junk PC’s for parts, so the only thing to be done with ours was to break them up and pitch them in a dumpster. Some students walked by that afternoon and were amazed I was throwing away computers and keyboards, even when I explained they really weren’t usable and I was told to toss them.
Once I remembered that, I began to see e-waste – that’s the buzzword – all over town: a PC put out for the trash down the street, a mound of old printers in an alley, and, walking in the Rattlesnake, a computer monitor that someone dumped in the woods and smashed with rocks.
It’s simple: we all need to do better. We all use hi-tech stuff and will continue the rest of our lives, and even if the out-of-date stuff is out of sight at the landfill, it’s not gone: it will last thousands of years. Considering how to reuse and recycle is maybe not as interesting as reading about computer viruses, but it’s more important.
Vicki Watson, professor and chair of the UM recycling committee, says that although no computers go to the landfill anymore and some equipment is recycled and also sold for parts, UM has a long way to go in terms of reusing equipment by upgrading and reducing the current three year rotation for new computers. I discovered that UM is outclassed by our local governments: I learned from the Auditor’s Office at Missoula County, and from Ginny Merriam, Information Officer for Missoula, that both governments have comprehensive recycle and reuse programs for all computers and hi-tech equipment.
What exactly is E-waste, and how does it effect each of us as individuals?
E-waste is computers and monitors, of course, but also printer ink and toner cartridges, cell phones, TV’s, DVD players and VCR’s and iPods. Someone said you can get 10,000 songs on an iPod, but when the battery dies it will be in the landfill for 10,000 years, leaking toxins. An average computer monitor has pounds of lead that will leach, circuit boards contain heavy metals, power supplies and monitors are heavy with copper, and cell phones leak rare and toxic elements.
A great view of e-waste and its consequences is the book “High Tech Trash: The First Global Investigation of Technology’s Toxic Underside” by Elizabeth Grossman. (book website: http://www.hightechtrash.com check the public library). Some numbers from the book: 250 million computers are expected to become obsolete between 2007 and 2008 and at least 200 million televisions will be discarded between 2003 and 2010; a total of 3 billion units of consumer electronics will become potential scrap between 2003 and 2010. Do the math: the results are not very pleasant. Besides not being very healthy in our own environment and landfills, a huge amount of e-waste ends up polluting other countries.
So what do we do? It’s still too easy to toss computers and hi-tech stuff: Allied Waste Services will take e-waste put out on the curb and crush it for the landfill, but there’s a better way. Allied worked with Montana DEQ and Women’s Voices for the Earth, Vann’s (and others) to hold an E-waste recycling event last June in Missoula. They collected almost ten tons of computers, monitors and printers that were then properly recycled. Another event in Missoula is being planned for next summer. (Check the Montana DEQ website for dates of other recycling events around the state; DEQ collected 170 tons around the state last year).
You can recycle yourself anytime for free or for a small price in Missoula. First, check the local computer store you deal with. For PC’s, monitors and printers, ComputerER, ReCompute and Doctor PC will recycle; costs vary for recycling and erasing hard drives, so check with them directly. For small stuff, BestBuy and other retailers have drop off kiosks for cellphones, batteries and printer cartridges.
(When recycling or donating, remember data security and erase or format your hard drive. Local computer stores will zero out your hard drive for a fee; other recyclers will take care of it. If you’re up for it, you can securely erase (beter than formatting) your own Windows or Mac hard drive.)
Staples will take any manufacturer’s computers, monitors and printers for $10 each. Items are security bagged and then shipped to a recycling firm out of state, where hard drives are professionally erased. Small stuff like mice and keyboards are free. Staples will take large TV’s and photocopy machines, too.
Palmer Electric is licensed by Montana DEQ as a recycler of e-waste. For computer equipment, they fill an 18 wheeler trailer that is hauled to a secure, state of the art recycling center called Total Reclaim in Seattle. Palmer pays around 55 cents a pound for computers and printers, which go into the locked trailer until shipment to the coast. Monitors cost $14 each to drop off.
Pacific Recycling takes a simpler approach: crushing, baling and shredding. They take PC’s and printers (but nothing with glass, such as a monitor) and pay a few cents a pound for the metal. That’s the easy way, but it’s better to actually separate the components rather than shredding the whole PC.
If you’re out of town, you can still recycle: all the major computer manufacturers such as Dell, HP and Apple have recycling programs, and you can ship to them. Check the manufacturer’s websites for details and limitations. Ask you local waster hauler for information on recycling, or save it to bring to town for the next e-waste event.
If you want to donate for reuse, some manufacturers have partnered with non-profits to repair and donate computer equipment to the economically disadvantaged in the U.S. and other countries. Dell Computer works with the National Cristina Foundation (NCF) to help disabled and economically disadvantaged children and adults get PC’s. CollectiveGood http://www.collectivegood.com/ refurbishes cell phones and gives them to charities that operate in third world countries.
Why not try to make that computer last a while longer? Microsoft’s new operating system Vista has tough hardware requirements which means that as much as 90% of the PC’s out there won’t run it very well, requiring a new computer. But Mac OS X will run well on Apple computers as much as six years old with a memory upgrade and the time it takes to install the new system.
So when it’s time for a new PC and time to toss the old one, do it the smart way and recycle and reuse – it’s easier than going to the landfill.