Community Waste Prevention Toolkit: Computers Fact Sheet
Downloading: Preventing Computer Waste
Personal computers are a growing waste management problem. In 1998 alone, more than 20 million PCs became obsolete in the US, and fewer than 11 percent of them were recycled.1 The rest -- almost 18 million computers -- were landfilled, incinerated, or stored away in closets or warehouses. By 2007, the cumulative number of obsolete computers in the US is expected to rise to 500 million.2 Although recycling facilities for computers are increasingly available, techniques for waste prevention, such as extending computer lifetimes, need to be improved.
This fact sheet provides strategies that government agencies, businesses, individuals, and institutions such as schools and hospitals can use to minimize the volume and toxicity of their electronics waste.
Why Reduce Computer Waste?
Computer waste is a serious environmental concern primarily because of its toxicity. According to a study by the New Jersey Institute of Technology, consumer electronics account for only 1 percent of the content of landfills by volume, but they contribute up to 70 percent of their toxic content.3 For example:
Computer Waste Prevention Strategies
1. Refurbish or upgrade existing computer
Refurbishing an existing computer delays its entrance into the waste stream. By extending your computer's useful life, you can save money by reducing disposal costs and deferring the need to buy new equipment. Computer refurbishers may add memory and other accessories to upgrade existing systems, while also fixing and replacing broken parts. When a computer cannot be repaired or upgraded, the refurbisher can send it to a recycler, who resells the functioning components. Nonfunctioning parts can be broken down further to recover valuable metals (such as silver and gold) and sometimes other scrap materials (such as plastic, glass, and other metals).
2. Purchase used or refurbished computer
Used and refurbished computers can be a good option for project-specific tasks of limited duration and for organizations operating on a restricted budget. The first place to look for high-quality used computer equipment may be the surplus management program run by your state, locality, business, or institution; organizations that are downsizing or undergoing personnel reorganizations may make relatively up-to-date computer equipment available free of charge.
Some nonprofit organizations run reuse programs, which make business
equipment available at relatively low cost. (For a list of reuse
organizations in the US, see http://www.redo.org/.) In addition, there
are small businesses that offer rebuilt desktop computers and laptops, as
well as large, expensive equipment such as mainframes and servers that
traditionally have significant after-market value (these businesses can
usually be found in the phone book). Make
sure to get a warranty on any refurbished computer equipment.
3. When purchasing new systems, choose equipment that can meet
your long-term needs or be easily upgraded.
Equipment that can be upgraded may cost more initially, but in the long run is cheaper than replacing an entire system. To facilitate upgrades, buy computers that can accommodate additional memory chips and other functions. Ask vendors for equipment with maintenance contracts and extended warranties. Also consider replacing components that become obsolete instead of buying a whole new system. For example, you may not need to replace or upgrade monitors and printers as frequently as CPUs.
4. Require vendors to take back their computer equipment when
you no longer need it.
"Take-back" requirements -- modeled after programs being implemented throughout the European Union (see Manufacturer Responsibility for E-Waste: Europe Paves the Way) -- can be written into computer contracts, requiring vendors to reuse, recycle, or properly dispose of their equipment when users are ready to discard it. In Massachusetts, for example, the state's Operational Services Division has specified a preference for vendors that "offer programs for the return of used equipment to the original manufacturer or a third-party entity for reuse or recycling," including "one-for-one exchange of equipment, collection of used equipment for reuse and/or recycling, or a coupon system for pre-paid take-back at permanent collection centers."7
This approach can provide purchasers with more flexibility than leasing
(see The Value
of Leasing and Take-Back), and gives manufacturers an incentive to
design their products to be long-lasting, nontoxic, and recyclable. It can
also spur the creation of computer recycling businesses funded by computer
manufacturers (rather than tax dollars). Take-back requirements should
require vendors to guarantee that hazardous constituents will either be
reclaimed or managed as hazardous waste, since you could be liable if an
environmental problem were to occur. Consider requiring vendors to take back
used packaging as well.
5. When purchasing new computers, trade in your old ones to be
Consider asking vendors of new equipment to donate or recycle your old computers, regardless of manufacturer (this is slightly different from the take-back requirements described above). Some computer companies will offer this service in order to get your business. Require certification that the donated computers are being reused or that obsolete computer equipment -- particularly the hazardous materials it contains -- is being properly recycled or disposed of. Depending on the equipment's remarketing value, vendors may pay or charge their customers a fee for this service. The following manufacturers have computer equipment recovery initiatives:
6. Lease or rent computers instead of purchasing them
When customers rent or lease computers -- or procure computing services -- the vendor is automatically required to take the equipment back at the end of the lease term. Renting periods are usually short term, while leases cover longer periods. Renting and leasing both provide users with a cost-effective way to keep their equipment up to date. The state of Minnesota recommends take-back and leasing clauses as a way to reduce the costs its agencies incur arranging and paying for computer recycling or disposal.9Compaq, Dell, Gateway, and IBM all lease their own equipment. Independent leasing companies, such as Computer Sales International, Leasing Group, and Stamford Computer Group, lease a variety of computer types.10
7. Donate used equipment to schools, local nonprofits, or your agency's (or company's) surplus management program for reuse.
Storing computer equipment that you no longer need makes it less likely to be used again. Many government agencies and businesses operate surplus management programs that internally redistribute office equipment. In addition, many organizations collect used computer equipment from government agencies and businesses and donate it to nonprofit organizations and schools. Businesses and individuals can receive tax deductions for donations of some computer equipment under two years old. Government agencies will need to establish a computer deacquisition process in order to legally give away computers to outside organizations. The federal government has done this through Executive Order 12999, "Educational Technology: Ensuring Opportunity for All Children in the Next Century," which facilitated the donation of approximately 70,000 pieces of computer equipment to schools from federal agencies in 1997.11
Note that many schools and other potential recipients want only
relatively modern equipment. And while donating delays computer waste
disposal, it does not eliminate it. In fact, donating obsolete equipment may
simply transfer the disposal problem to another entity.
8. Contract with a private recycling company to handle your
obsolete equipment at end of life.
Even when computers cannot be reused, they often still have value and should not be thrown away. If computer take-back or leasing is not appropriate for all your computers, set up a contract with a recycling vendor (preferably in your region to reduce transportation costs) to reuse or recycle your used equipment. You can specify that the recycler destroy data on disk drives and certify that the equipment was handled by permitted facilities. Computer recyclers either reuse functional components in "refurbished" equipment or recycle unusable materials. Ask vendors to make every effort to recycle glass (including the lead shield), plastic, batteries, mercury, and other scrap metals, instead of recovering only highly valuable metals such as silver, gold, and copper. (When internal clock batteries wear out, they can be returned to battery retailers free of charge through the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.'s Charge Up to Recycle! program. For more information, see http://www.rbrc.org/.) The following organizations maintain on-line directories of local computer recyclers:
The Value of Leasing and Take-Back
In the US, leasing of personal computers is growing dramatically -- by 149 percent between 1997 and 1998 alone. In 1998, leasing accounted for one-third of all computer transactions.12 The main reason users lease computer equipment is to keep pace with technology; leasing allows businesses and government to upgrade more easily than if they owned equipment outright. Particularly at larger organizations, leasing can also bring significant savings in the costs of new equipment and disposal, as well as reduced liability concerns associated with the disposal of hazardous materials contained in computer equipment. Minnesota signed a contract through its Cooperative Purchasing Program that offers state agencies and local governments the option of leasing computers.
Computer leasing is valuable business for manufacturers as well. IBM, for example, resells one third of the equipment returned to the company through its corporate leasing programs.13 Leasing and other take-back programs encourage manufacturers to design their equipment in ways that enhance its end-of-life value and increase opportunities for reuse. Since the manufacturer, as lessor, gets its products back at the end of the lease term, it has an incentive to reduce disposal costs by recapturing the residual value of its products through reuse, remanufacturing, or recycling. Leasing and other forms of take-back also provide an incentive for vendors to partner with companies that refurbish or recycle used computer equipment, or with organizations that donate computer systems to nonprofits and schools.
Manufacturer Responsibility for E-Waste: Europe Paves the Way
The European Union is in the final stages of passing two far-reaching directives that address the solid waste and toxic pollution created by computers and other types of electronic equipment.
Government Efforts to Prevent Computer Waste in the US
The electronics industry in the United States is increasingly concerned about the threat of computer take-back mandates at the state level. In Minnesota, for example, the state Office of Environmental Assistance issued its Project Stewardship Initiative in 1999, instructing producers of computer monitors -- as well as carpet and paint manufacturers -- to find ways of removing their products from the municipal waste stream at industry expense. The initiative is being pursued on a voluntary basis, with the threat of legislation if sufficient progress is not made.
In response, Sony has entered into a five-year agreement with the state of Minnesota and Waste Management, Inc., to take back its products for recycling free of charge. The project is an expansion of a three-month pilot program that ended in March 2000 and diverted 600 tons of used electronic equipment from disposal. Other companies have begun to initiate similar programs, although smaller in scope.
Like Minnesota, state governments across the country are starting to get serious about the dramatic rise in toxic waste from discarded computers and other electronic products. Massachusetts and California, for example, have banned computer monitors and TV sets from ordinary landfills and incinerators. The states recognize the need to address the growing health and environmental risks posed by lead-containing CRTs, and the potential for job creation resulting from policies that encourage the reuse, remanufacture, and recycling of discarded electronics.
Other Environmental Factors to Consider When Purchasing Computers
For information on the hazards of computers and other electronic equipment, see the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's Clean Computer Campaign at http://www.svtc.org/ and the Mercury Policy Project at http://www.mercurypolicy.org/.
For more information on environmentally preferable purchasing of computer equipment, see Northwest Product Stewardship Council Computer Subcommittee, A Guide to Environmentally Preferable Computer Purchasing, October 2000, at http://www.govlink.org/nwpsc/computer.htm. Also see "Computers and Monitors," The Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guide, Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, at http://www.swmcb.org/EPPG/.
For a series of articles on computer procurement and recycling in the federal government (including INFORM's article, "Return to Vendor: A Solution to Obsolete Computer Equipment"), see US White House Task Force on Recycling, Closing the Circle News, Spring 2001, at http://www.ofee.gov/ctc/spring01.pdf.
For information on state and federal laws and regulations on computers and other electronic devices, see the US Environmental Protection Agency's Product Stewardship fact sheets at http://www.epa.gov/epr/products/electronics.html.
For information on the take-back and recycling programs of specific computer manufacturers, see:
For information on electronic take-back requirements in Europe, see the European Commission's proposal for a "Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment" and for a "Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment," June 2000, at http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/docum/00347_en.htm.
For information on leasing as a waste-preventing alternative to buying computers, see Bette K. Fishbein et al., Leasing: A Step Toward Producer Responsibility, INFORM, Inc., 2000, at http://www.informinc.org/leasingepr.php.
For independent computer leasing companies, see:
For directories of local computer recyclers, see:
For information on donating computers, see "Electronics Reuse and
Recycling," WasteWise Update, US Environmental Protection Agency, October
2000, at http://www.govlink.org/nwpsc/computer.htm.
For organizations that donate used computers to schools and nonprofits, see:
1 National Safety Council, Environmental Health
Center, "Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report," May
1999, as cited in Bette K. Fishbein et al., Leasing: A Step Toward
Producer Responsibility, INFORM Inc., 2000, 49, http://www.informinc.org/leasingepr.php.
7 Commonwealth of Massachusetts Environmentally
Preferable Products Procurement Program, "Product Information: PCs and
Peripherals Category," http://www.state.ma.us/osd/enviro/products/computer.htm.
8 "Hewlett-Packard Unveils Computer Recycling Plan,"
Waste News, May 28, 2001, 1, http://www.wastenews.com/.
9 "Computers and Monitors: Environmental and Health
Issues," The Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guide, Minnesota
Office of Environmental Assistance, 2000, http://www.swmcb.org/EPPG/.
10 Fishbein, et al., Leasing, 58, http://www.informinc.org/leasingepr.php.
11 US Environmental Protection Agency,
"Electronics," Product Stewardship fact sheet, April 30, 2001, http://www.epa.gov/epr/products/efed.html.
12 Equipment Leasing Association, as cited in
Fishbein, et al., Leasing, 49, http://www.informinc.org/leasingepr.php.
14 Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Operational Services Division, Recycled Products Listing/Statewide Price Agreements, "PC Contract (PCs and Peripherals Category)," 18, http://www.state.ma.us/osd/enviro/info/vol13_sec2.pdf. For a summary of "Desirable Environmental Criteria" in Massachusetts' Request for Response (RFR) for PCs and Peripherals, see http://www.state.ma.us/osd/enviro/info/factsheets2/computer_
16 Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Operational Services Division, "PC Contract (PCs and Peripherals Category)," 18, http://www.state.ma.us/osd/enviro/info/vol13_sec2.pdf.