How do you Junk your Computer?

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MICHAEL GREENLAR FOR TIME

In a cement-floored warehouse in upstate New York, half a dozen women sit hunched over computer workstations. Holding a heat gun in one hand and metal tweezers in the other, they pry silicon chips from circuit boards like dentists extracting little metal teeth. Down the hall, a jumble of bright green motherboards spills out onto a conveyor belt headed toward a shredder that will rip them to cracker-size pieces of plastic. And around the corner, a clean-cut guy in a black work smock takes a big hammer and smashes one hard drive after another before tossing them into a huge bin marked ALUMINUM.

No, this is not a PC factory gone berserk. This is the place where old computers go to die. IBM's Asset Recovery Center in Endicott, N.Y., is one of the largest PC junkyards in the world. Some 40 million lbs. of computers are dismantled here each year.

It hardly makes a dent, however, in the annual bumper crop of dead computers. Every year an electronic trash heap nearly as tall as Mount Everest is tossed into garbage cans, stashed in garages or forgotten in closets. Some 500 million PCs will be rendered obsolete by 2007 in the U.S. alone--abandoned by users who have upgraded to faster and sexier machines--according to a report by the National Safety Council. Computers are ranked as the nation's fastest-growing category of solid waste by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And one of its most dangerous. Old PCs contain lead, cadmium, mercury and other unsavory components. Yet only 10% of the machines are recycled. Many of them find their way into landfills and incinerators, where they can threaten the environment. That's why the European Union has drafted rules that will hold manufacturers responsible for recycling their wares by 2008.

To fend off similar legislation here, U.S. manufacturers are scrambling to devise recycling programs of their own--and hoping to make a buck while they're at it. Last November, IBM launched the first nationwide program; it charges computer users a $30 shipping-and-handling fee to take even an ancient PC off their hands. Hewlett-Packard plans to launch its consumer-PC take-back program in March. Regional efforts--such as Sony's "recycling days" begun in Minnesota last fall--have sprung up from Oregon to New York.

They face some consumer resistance. It's hard to pay a stranger to cart away a computer you bought for $2,000. Yet by the time you're ready to part with that machine, it's often so obsolete that no school or charity will take it. If you put it on the curb with the trash, however, it will end up in a landfill, where toxins could leach into the soil.

A recycled PC, on the other hand, is literally a gold mine. Pentium and other processors have golden tips. A computer's main circuit board, fashioned from copper and fiber glass, is studded with silver and gold connectors. A steel frame keeps the unit sturdy, and aluminum or copper heat sinks prevent the cpu from overheating. The outer plastic case can be recycled to make everything from pothole filler to pencil holders. Even the cords dangling from the back have rich copper wiring that can be reincarnated as pipes, pans or furniture.

Yet for all the precious metals and other reusable parts, it's still tough to make any money recycling PCs. Minus the cost of processing, the average used system is worth a measly $6 in raw materials, according to electronics recycler Envirocycle in Hallstead, Pa. The monitor is worth just $2.50. When IBM announced its consumer-PC recycling program last fall, it decided to have the carcasses shipped not to its 700,000-sq.-ft. recycling center in Endicott (where it mines corporate PCs for parts) but to an independent recycler 30 miles away. The reason: "Typically all that low-end stuff is not profitable," says Lawrence Yehle, operations manager at IBM Endicott.

So low is the material value of each PC that the first step in recycling is to try to resell the machine--either whole or for its working parts. IBM resells a third of the used equipment it gets back from corporate leases in online sales and auctions. "It's a profitable business for us," says Joe Lane, general manager for global financing. Old chips get second lives in electronic toys. Outdated cd-rom and hard drives are reborn as replacement parts.

When components are too old to be salvaged, IBM ships them to specialists in plastic, metals and glass. At Envirocycle, which does monitors, the plastic cases are popped open, the power cables chopped off and the circuit boards removed. Next the glass is crushed into pieces and stripped of various coatings so it can be sent to monitor makers that will re-form the rubble into new displays. MBA Polymers in Richmond, Calif., feeds whole keyboards and joysticks into its machines. The metals get siphoned off, then the plastic is melted into tiny pellets, which are resold for use in industrial flooring, auto parts and office supplies.

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