Talking E-Trash


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The main task of computer-network manager Mike Nisbet at Rheem Manufacturing in Montgomery, Ala., is to keep 500 PCs and laptops virus-free and humming. Last year he was haunted by another worry: averting an avalanche. The obsolete or trashed equipment that he and his staff routinely piled in a storage room was in a heap 6 ft. high and growing. "I was afraid someone might get hurt," he says.

Nisbet could find only one state-approved electronics hauler, which promised for $6,000 to entomb 300 pieces of e-waste in concrete before taking it all to a landfill. The price, along with Nisbet's unease about burdening the landfill, bothered him enough to seek another solution. He found one in St. Charles, Mo., paying EPC the same price to recycle an even larger load of high-tech trash.

Like Rheem, many companies avoid dealing with end-of-life electronics duties as long as possible. When they do, many are unaware of the federal rule that businesses generating more than 220 lbs. of monitor waste a month (about 10 PCs' worth) handle disposal responsibly. That's starting to change. The number of for-profit electronics-recycling firms has doubled over the past three years, to about 900, offering alternatives to the landfill and the stockroom graveyard.

Companies are less likely to recycle electronics than other waste, even though computers make dreadful trash. A desktop computer contains nearly 40 lbs. of plastic, lead, aluminum and iron, along with small amounts of arsenic, mercury, zinc and gold, and environmentalists are worried that the metals will leach into soil and water. But without national standards, some recyclers play fast and loose with the term. Some just shred waste. Others ship it overseas to China, Vietnam or India.

EPC, a refurbishing and reselling firm, jumped into the recycling business in 2005 to end those practices. "We used to work with companies that claimed that all materials were properly recycled in the U.S. But on at least three occasions, I watched them load computers onto export containers," says Dan Fuller, EPC's president. EPC "demanufactures" 150 tons of equipment a month for about $10 per computer. Workers take apart monitors by hand, sending the leaded glass tubing to a Missouri smelting operation. A hulking baler crunches plastic hardware to a tenth its size, and metals are extracted and sold.

So how do you find a recycler that takes the trouble to actually recycle? One simple test: ask how many pounds of glass it sends out each year. Because of the toxic lead in glass cathode-ray-tube (CRT) monitors, dealing with them properly is the most important part of the recycling process. "If your vendor refuses to show a CRT-glass rate, you should be concerned," says Robin Ingenthron, who runs Good Point Recycling in Middlebury, Vt. He also suggests asking for an audit trail.

Some companies go even further to ensure a clean, green conscience. Green-Tech Assets of Cumberland, R.I., offers a risk-management service to protect clients from liability in cases of improper disposal by third-party contractors. "We're willing to be your firewall," says Green-Tech senior vice president Jim Keck. In the world of e-waste disposal, peace of mind has become a renewable--and marketable--resource.