How do you Junk your Computer?

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MICHAEL GREENLAR FOR TIME

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Because metals are especially valuable, Hewlett-Packard mines its own. Step inside its 200,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in Roseville, Calif. (which it runs with partner MicroMetallics), and you will see computers stacked three stories high. A hulking blue machine swallows PCs and mainframes whole, grinds them up and a few minutes later spits them out in quarter-size pieces. A system of magnets, screens and electrical currents separates out aluminum and steel, while the remaining mixed metals go to Noranda Inc., a copper smelter in Quebec. The metal scrap HP produces by the ton has a higher percentage of copper than ore excavated from the ground, according to Bob Sippel, Noranda's vice president of recycling. Last year the Roseville operation retrieved more than $5 million worth of gold, copper, silver, aluminum and steel.

As recycling ramps up, computer manufacturers are discovering new ways to make the process more efficient. Metal screws are being replaced with snap-open panels for quicker dismantling. Lead solder used to fasten parts to circuit boards is giving way to safer tin, silver and copper alloys. Spray-on flame retardants, which can be toxic when recycled, are being replaced with metal paneling. And those annoying plastic shipping peanuts are being replaced with packing material made of water-soluble starch.

Still, critics insist that more work needs to be done. "The efforts in the U.S. have been chaotic and will not be successful until companies start picking up the excess costs," says activist Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. In their defense, U.S. manufacturers insist that government and consumers must share the responsibility--and the cost.

"I can't go into people's houses and take their computers out for them," says Renee St. Denis, environmental-business-unit manager for HP. That's true. But if consumers aren't given sufficient incentive to turn their computers in, then all those recycling initiatives--not to mention all those PCs piling up in closets--could simply go to waste.

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