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 Prevention Strategies
- The Value of Leasing and Take-Back
- Manufacturer Responsibility for E-Waste: Europe Paves the Way
- Government Efforts to Prevent Computer Waste in the US
- Other Environmental Factors to Consider When Purchasing Computers
- Additional Information
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:
- The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in most computer monitors and television screens have x-ray shields that contain 4 to 8 pounds of lead, mostly embedded in glass. Discarded monitors and televisions are believed to be the largest sources of lead in landfills.(4) (Flat-screen monitors used in laptops do not contain high concentrations of lead, but most are illuminated with fluorescent lights that contain some mercury.) CRTs are considered hazardous waste under both federal and state law and are required to be managed as such.
- A PC’s central processing unit (CPU) — the module containing the chip and the disk drive — typically contains toxic heavy metals such as mercury (in switches), lead (in solder on circuit boards), and cadmium (in batteries).
- Plastics used to house computer equipment and cover wire cables often contain polybrominated flame retardants, a class of chemicals similar to PCBs that were recently detected in fish in Wisconsin. Studies indicate that ingesting these substances may increase the risk of cancer, liver damage, and immune system dysfunction.(5)
- Lead, mercury, cadmium, and polybrominated flame retardants are all persistent, bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) that can create environmental and health risks when computers are manufactured, incinerated, landfilled, or melted down during recycling.(6) PBTs are a particularly dangerous class of chemicals that linger in the environment and accumulate in living tissue. Because they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain, PBTs can reach dangerous levels in living creatures — even when released in minute quantities. PBTs are harmful to human health and the environment, and have been associated with cancer, nerve damage, reproductive disorders, and other serious health problems.
Computer Waste Prevention Strategies
1. Refurbish or upgrade existing computer equipment.
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 equipment.
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 recycled.
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:
- Dell’s Asset Recovery Service will manage all or part of the computer recycling process for purchasers of new Dell products. The Value Recovery Service sells functional used equipment of any brand and returns the revenue to the customer, minus a small fee. The PC Recycling Service collects older equipment for demanufacturing; customers typically pay a fee of $20 per unit.
- Gateway’s Your:)Ware Recycling Program offers a rebate of up to $50 to customers who donate or recycle their old computers when purchasing new Gateway equipment.
- Hewlett-Packard charges consumers $13 to $34 to pick up any brand of used computer equipment for reuse, resale, or donation.(8)
- IBM’s PC Recycling Service will recycle any manufacturer’s PC for $29.99 per system. Customers must box the equipment themselves and ship it via United Parcel Service to Envirocycle, an electronic equipment recycling center. The equipment is then refurbished and donated, or recycled. This service can be purchased even if the customer is not buying a new IBM computer.
6. Lease or rent computers instead of purchasing them outright.
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
- The Electronics Industries Alliance, a trade organization, recently launched the web-based Consumer Education Initiative, which directs users to local charities and schools that collect used electronic equipment.
- Computers for Learning distributes used equipment from federal agencies to local schools.
- Gifts in Kind America is a national organization that distributes used equipment to a variety of charitable organizations and institutions.
- The Parents, Educators and Publishers (PEP) National Directory of Computer Recycling Programs directs users to state, national, and international agencies that facilitate donations of used equipment to schools and community groups.
- The Reuse Development Organization maintains a list of local reuse organizations in the US.
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.) The following organizations maintain on-line directories of local computer recyclers:
- The Electronics Industries Alliance’s Consumer Education Initiative lists recyclers by state, country, and city.
- The Electronics Recycling Initiative, managed by the National Recycling Coalition, lists recyclers by state and includes municipal programs.
- The International Association of Electronics Recyclers operates a multilevel search engine.
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.
- The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive requires manufacturers of electronics to take physical or financial responsibility for their products at end of life. By the end of 2001, it is expected that consumers will be able to return their obsolete computers to retailers for recycling free of charge.
- The Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive will require manufacturers of electronic devices to eliminate their use of lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and other hazardous substances (unless they get an exemption) by 2008. This proposed directive has already caused several manufacturers to start offering computer technology that is free of these hazardous substances. In addition, it has stimulated negotiations among industry, government, recyclers, and environmental organizations (including INFORM) in the US — in an effort known as the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) — to come up with similar solutions to the e-waste problem in this country.
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
- Specify and purchase computer equipment capable of printing double-sided copies (duplexing). According to the US Department of Energy, users can save approximately $400 over the life of a printer by duplexing. Make sure equipment is set to print double-sided by default.
- Choose printers that can use remanufactured toner cartridges, which can save up to 50 percent per copy, according to the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
- Give preference to vendors that offer computer equipment without lead solder and with recycled-content glass or plastic and easily removable components (including batteries). Survey your vendors regularly to identify the environmentally preferable attributes of the computer equipment they offer. In Massachusetts, the state’s RFR gives bidders the chance to “win points for products which were manufactured with less toxic materials, designed for recyclability, contain recycled content in the plastic housing, CRT glass or other parts and were shipped in recycled or reduced packaging.”(14)
- Avoid monitors with CRTs, when possible. Flat-panel display screens are more energy-efficient than CRTs and do not need lead shields. Look for emerging flat-panel technologies made without mercury-containing lights.
- Shop around for the most energy-efficient model that meets your needs. In 1997, according to one source, the world’s 324 million operating PCs consumed an estimated 332 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. That’s enough to power 11 million households for over three years.(15) The EPA now certifies the degree of energy efficiency of most computers. (See http://www.energystar.gov/ for the energy requirements of various models.) The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ procurement guidelines require all desktop computers “to be shipped with the energy star feature enabled,” recognizing that in order “to realize the energy and cost savings associated with energy star machines, this feature must remain enabled or re-established following machine set up.”(16)
- Direct vendors to install electronic versions of software instructional manuals instead of providing paper copies.
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 https://www.rethinkrecycling.com/.
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:
- Compaq at http://www5.compaq.com/financialservices/
- Dell at http://www.dell.com/us/en/biz/services/asset_000_assetrecovery.htm
- Gateway at http://www.gateway.com/home/programs/recycle.shtml
- Hewlett-Packard at http://www8.hp.com/us/en/hp-information/environment/product-recycling.html
- IBM at https://www.ibm.com/ibm/environment/
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.
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.
For independent computer leasing companies, see:
- Computer Sales International at http://www.csileasing.com/
- Leasing Group at http://www.leasinggroup.com/
- Stamford Computer Group at http://www.scgcomputer.com/.
For directories of local computer recyclers, see:
Consumer Education Initiative (Electronics Industries Alliance) .
Electronics Recycling Initiative (National Recycling Coalition) at http://www.nrc-recycle.org/resources/electronics/index.htm
International Association of Electronics Recyclers at http://www.iaer.org/search.
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:
- Computers for Learning at http://www.computers.fed.gov/
- Consumer Education Initiative (Electronics Industries Alliance)
- Gifts in Kind America at http://www.giftsinkind.org/
- Parents, Educators, and Publishers (PEP) National Directory of Computer Recycling Programs at http://www.microweb.com/pepsite.
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.
2 National Security Council, as cited in Anita Hamilton, “How Do You Junk Your Computer?” Time, February 12, 2001, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,98002,00.html.
3 Elizabeth McDonnell, “Turning Wastestream Materials into Economic Opportunities,” Demanufacturing Partnership Program Newsletter, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Fall 1997, 1.
4 “USA Sitting on Mountain of Obsolete PCs,” USA Today, June 22, 1999.
5 “Flame Retardant Found in Great Lakes Salmon,” Environmental News Service, February 27, 2001.
6 Michael Pare, “Metech Seizes Opportunity in Computer Salvage,” High Tech, November 30, 1998.
7 Commonwealth of Massachusetts Environmentally Preferable Products Procurement Program, “Product Information: PCs and Peripherals Category,”
8 “Hewlett-Packard Unveils Computer Recycling Plan,” Waste News, May 28, 2001, 1,
9 “Computers and Monitors: Environmental and Health Issues,” The Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guide, Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, 2000, https://www.rethinkrecycling.com/
10 Fishbein, et al., Leasing, 58, https://informinc.org/
11 US Environmental Protection Agency, “Electronics,” Product Stewardship fact sheet, April 30, 2001.
12 Equipment Leasing Association, as cited in Fishbein, et al., Leasing, 49, https://informinc.org
13 Hamilton, “How Do You Junk Your Computer?” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,98002,00.html.
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.
15 Steve Anzovin, “The Green PC Revisited,” Computer Currents Magazine, September 30, 1997.
16 Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Operational Services Division, “PC Contract (PCs and Peripherals Category),” 18.