Saturday, March 29, 2008

Computers are becoming as ubiquitous as televisions in American homes. But as newer, faster and cheaper computers are churned out, where do the obsolete systems go?

A new study by the National Safety Council's (NSC) Environmental Health Center, Washington, D.C., confirms what many have suspected - that relatively few old personal computers (PCs) are being recycled. Instead, most are stored in warehouses, basements or closets, or have met their end in municipal landfills or incinerators.

According to the NSC's Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report, "Recycling of Selected Electronic Products in the United States," approximately 20.6 million personal computers became obsolete in the United States by 1998, while only 11 percent - about 2.3 million units - have been recycled. (This only includes PCs shipped in 1992 or later. It does not include older PCs already disposed of or those in storage or in use.)

Compared to the 36.7 million PCs shipped from manufacturers in 1998, the percentage of PCs recycled dwindles to about 6 percent. In contrast, for major appliances, including washing machines, water heaters, air conditioners, refrigerators, dryers, dishwashers, ranges and freezers, the ratio of units recycled to units shipped was about 70 percent in 1998.
The study, conducted by Stanford Resources Inc., San Jose, Calif., notes sales and recycling information for eight equipment categories:
* Desktop PC central processing units (CPUs);
* Mainframe computer CPUs;
* Workstation computer CPUs;
* Laptop computers;
* Cathode ray tube (CRT) computer monitors;
* Computer peripherals, for example, printers, plotters and scanners;
* Telecommunications equipment (routers and switches); and
* CRT consumer television sets.

A total of 123 firms were surveyed, including recyclers, third-party organizations that refurbish equipment, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and large corporate users of electronic equipment. As for electronics recycling's future, the report forecasts:

* In 2002, the number of desktop PC CPUs reaching obsolescence will, for the first time, exceed the number of desktop PC CPUs shipped by approximately 3.4 million.
* The cumulative total of PC CPUs that will have become obsolete between 1997 and 2007 will be nearly 500 million.

* Federal government donations of used PCs to schools have met with limited success because of complex federal requirements that apply to the transfer of equipment ownership.
* And, growth in desktop PC CPU recycling will be significant as more units in storage are sent to recyclers and as household penetration of PCs (currently about 50 percent) continues to rise.
NSC hopes these forecasts and recycling rates will be useful in strategic planning and policy decisions at federal, state and local levels, as well as help nonprofit organizations join with manufacturers or government agencies to promote recycling.

The report resulted from a NSC Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Roundtable - an organization founded in 1997 comprised of representatives from electronic equipment manufacturers, recyclers, academic institutions, and federal, state and local government agencies concerned about the increasing volume of obsolete electronic equipment. The group's mission is to promote environmentally and economically responsible management of electronic products throughout their life cycle.

Hewlett-Packard and IBM, both Roundtable member, are examples of how manufacturers can boost recycling rates. Each month at product recovery centers in France, Germany and California, Hewlett-Packard reuses or recycles more than 3.5 million pounds or 99 percent by weight of materials received from its customers and company operations.
Likewise, IBM operates 10 materials recovery centers around the world, with additional locations supporting part returns and regional collection. In 1997, these operations processed more than 62,000 metric tons of manufacturing scrap equipment, obsolete IBM-owned machines and customer-returned equipment. More than 90 percent was recycled and less than 5 percent was sent to landfills.

Although some firms process an impressive amount of equipment, the NSC report found electronics recycling is in its formative stages and requires more infrastructure development to collect and process the volumes of obsolete equipment.

According to the report, equipment manufacturers will take a more aggressive approach to product stewardship in the future in response to customers' needs and other market forces. The volume of obsolete equipment also will continue to grow along with the rapid pace of technological change, emphasizing the need for more recycling. Overall, the report concludes that an efficient, workable electronics recycling system will depend on partnerships and collaborations among manufacturers, transportation providers, recyclers and third-party organizations.

Monday, March 24, 2008


E-waste is growing by more than bits and bytes as outdated stereos, TV sets and VCRs make way for newer technology. As these products pile up in garages, attics and basements, electronic waste (e-waste) recycling efforts have become a priority for businesses and municipalities.

To take action on burgeoning e-waste, Houston-based Waste Management Inc., began to offer e-waste recycling several years ago under its Phoenix, Ariz.-based Recycling America subsidiary. Simultaneously, the company has focused on large commercial accounts, such as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and other commercial businesses, to expand its electronics recycling.

Services now are provided to public, private and nonprofit customers in 20 states through a network of more than 50 collection depots and four regional processing centers. Recycle America's electronics recycling program, branded eCycling in March 2002, is expected to recycle more than 40 million pounds of e-waste by the end of the year.

Recycling America's collection services include curbside collection, typically through bulky goods and drop-off programs for electronics. The company also has hosted than more 40 special collection events this year in California, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota and several other states.
Processing costs range from $0.15 per pound to $0.35 per pound, depending on the commodity, customer needs (e.g., product identification, proprietary destruction, ability to resell) and material quantities. Rebates also are offered for precious metals, working and resalable equipment and components, and other select e-waste streams.

Recycle America faces challenges with electronics recycling. Even with the economies of scale and strong commodity marketing capabilities, the company has difficulty with certain markets that change frequently or are underdeveloped.

“The U.S. electronics recycling industry must overcome immature markets for materials such as cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and plastics,” the company says.

Despite the challenges, Recycle America encourages other businesses and municipalities to develop their own e-waste recycling programs. Doing so will help reduce a city's or company's disposal costs, better manage resources and minimize future liabilities from storing potentially hazardous products, according to the company.

The eCycling program, which began in 1996, has grown three-fold this year compared to 2001 and nearly eight-fold since 2000, particularly with municipal and government contracts, according to the company. Recycle America expects high growth from municipalities and limited commercial growth until an economic recovery is in full swing.

To prepare for growth, Recycle America is adding to its number of existing e-depots and e-waste consolidation facilities. Also, the company has focused on developing partnerships with other recyclers to deliver service through an integrated network of local and regional facilities.

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