Old PCs pile up

By Traci Watson, USA TODAY
22 June 1999.

The nation is starting to drown in old home computers, and that will pose a big environmental problem -- as soon as people decide they should get the PC out of the attic and throw it away.

As the useful life span of a computer gets ever shorter, the pile of PCs cast aside for speedier models grows ever larger. And there's no good way for home-computer users to get rid of their outdated clunkers.

Nowhere in the USA can anyone simply leave a PC by the curb and expect it to be recycled. And even some charities and schools are spurning models without Pentium chips.

"We should find a practical way of handling old computers other than digging a big hole and dumping them in the ground," says Reid Lifset of Yale University, editor of The Journal of Industrial Ecology. "If we design PCs from the get-go for upgrade and recycling, then we can do a lot to minimize this problem."

Old computers aren't as much of a disposal headache as, say, used syringes. But the PC's central processing unit -- the module with the chip and the disk drive -- does contain traces of toxic chemicals, such as mercury and chromium. Monitors contain lead, which is mixed with the glass to shield users from radiation. One survey found that old monitors are one of the largest sources of lead in landfills.

When a business's computers become obsolete, the company that made them or their replacements often will cart off the old machines. But individuals enjoy no such luxury.

That means bewilderment for people like San Francisco resident Josh Sobeck, who has relegated two unused Apple machines to his pantry. Sobeck doesn't know what else to do with them. "I have discovered that they are excellent at collecting dust and holding up bags of rice, but other than that, I am at a loss," he says.

He's not alone. A study six years ago by students at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., estimated that 76% of old PCs are in storage. The percentage may be lower now, but it isn't zero, Tufts' Edward Aqua says.

And outdated computers aren't being recycled. In a report issued this month, the National Safety Council estimates that only 11% of the PC processors that became obsolete in 1998 were recycled. Another 3% were resold or donated to someone else. No one knows whether the remaining machines were mothballed or thrown into landfills.

And the problem will get bigger, the report predicts. It forecasts that in 2002, 3.4 million more PCs will outlive their usefulness than will be shipped by manufacturers.

A few cities have tried computer-recycling programs . In San Jose, Calif., a one-month pilot program in 1997 netted 972 CPUs, 937 monitors and 413 printers among computer equipment collected at three electronics stores. Total haul: 61,000 pounds.

Participants were "thrilled" to be able to turn in their old gear, says Dave Jones of the Environmental Protection Agency. "People...said, 'Hey, this is a real opportunity.' "

For most Americans, though, computer recycling is just a dream. The reason: It's hard to make a profit overhauling yesterday's PCs, or breaking them down for scrap.

Older, commercial computers contain enough gold and silver to make them valuable to recycling firms. But newer, individual models don't have troves of precious metals, says Greg Pitts, director of environmental programs for the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. What they have instead is a lot of plastic.

"Now we have hundreds of different materials in a 30-pound box," Pitts says. "It's very difficult to separate them and make money off them."

Some companies do manage to profit. But they generally get their PCs from manufacturers and large businesses, which ensures a high-volume, consistent supply. For these recyclers, collecting from homes is likely to be a money-loser because "instead of getting a million of one thing, you get a million different things," Pitts says.

Until plastics recycling becomes cheap and easy, experts are suggesting other solutions: More leasing of computers, so PC manufacturers would have a bigger incentive to reuse parts, and better systems for transporting old computers, to bring down recycling costs.

But those ideas won't soon improve the situation of the Kornblum family of Natick, Mass. They have two unused computers and three abandoned monitors, and the pile is likely to grow when Mark, 18, goes to college in the fall. His dad and sister will then probably inherit his Pentium 233 machine and toss aside their creaky Pentium 100.

"You want this stuff?" father Mike Kornblum asks plaintively. "Because I'm looking for a place to unload it."

© Copyright 1999 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.