That Polluting PC

Letting old PCs rest in peace is an increasingly risky practice for companies.

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Letting old PCs rest in peace is an increasingly risky practice for companies. Computers present a number of potential environmental hazards, from the heavily leaded cathode ray tubes in monitors to the nickel and lithium batteries used for energy backups. While it’s not yet technically illegal to dump computers (although Environmental Protection Agency regulations require monitors to be treated as hazardous waste), companies may be held liable for allowing any of a computer’s components to contaminate the environment.

Rather than throw their computers away, companies can go the recycling route–usually for a price. Fees vary widely, with disposal costs ranging from $6 to $20 per monitor to 5 cents to 30 cents per pound for other equipment. If equipment can be refurbished and resold, however, a company may actually get some value back for its efforts. A good rule of thumb, says Hewlett-Packard Co. environmental business unit manager Renee St. Denis, is that 486 processors and below are likely to cost money to recycle, while Pentiums and above may be worth up to $30 each.

Large computer manufacturers, such as IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard, are increasingly willing to negotiate with large clients on trade-in values for old equipment when they decide to upgrade, and will process old equipment with no resale value for a fee, which varies with the age of the equipment. St. Denis says the volume of trade-in deals remains low, but has more than doubled over the past year. Both HP and IBM say they incur almost no costs in recycling their in-house computers, because the value from resales, harvested parts, and precious metals offsets processing and disposal costs.

After looking for refurbishment and donation opportunities, Nortel Networks’s Minnetonka, Minn., facility sends its obsolete PCs out to nearby Asset Recovery Corp.’s recycling center. Nortel support-services coordinator Donald Stinson says one of the benefits of using the center is that it provides a certificate of destruction that can help prove the company’s compliance with environmental codes, thus reducing future liability costs.

Small computer recycling operations are springing up across the country in response to the growing demand for their services, but it is important to consider the firm’s reputation, according to Leah Jung, an environmental consultant with Denver-based Vista Environmental Inc. She urges her clients to beware of operations that make profits by sending computer scrap to Asia or developing countries, where cheap labor and lax environmental protection make it easy for environmental contamination.

“To a company that has old equipment, the cost is not financial, it’s in image and liability,” Jung says. “If a company does not want to pay to have its equipment handled, it’s going to be processed in a less-developed country.”

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