Junked computers, environmental risks
Recycling: To reduce toxic waste, users should think twice before dragging that outdated machine to the trash
Jack Revelle has old computers stacked all over the warehouse of his Baltimore-based online firm, Pro Quo Books. (Photo by Donna Griffin, Special to Baltimoresun.com / July 12, 2004)
As co-owner of Pro Quo Books, a Baltimore online book distributor, he expects some of the more than 150,000 titles he carries will end up not just in their designated bins or shelves, but in the hallway, on the floor -- and even in the company's employee lounge.
What Revelle doesn't like, however, are the useless monitors and aging computer equipment that gather dust alongside them.
"We have six or seven monitors that are sitting in the warehouse," Revelle said. "They're fine to use for some applications, but for other applications, for the applications we bought them for, we can't use them."
Revelle faces a dilemma common to many business owners today: How to safely dispose of old computer equipment.
Although there are no laws prohibiting businesses from simply dumping obsolete machines into landfills or incinerators, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) strongly recommends against this because of the batteries and toxic metals computers contain.
Cathode-ray tubes, in particular, are problematic. Each tube, used in computer monitors, typically houses three to six pounds of lead.
"Electronic equipment contains heavy metals that can be toxic if ingested," said Hilary Miller, who oversees the department's Recycling, Marketing and Operations program. "They contain cadmium, lead and mercury, which can be hazardous to human health and the environment if not properly managed."
Miller added that such equipment also consumes a great deal of space and that landfills are not always equipped to handle them.
"Current landfills today are pretty well-regulated by the state and federal government, and they have liner-systems and leachate-collection systems," she said. "Theoretically, if they are properly managed and installed, [these systems] collect any hazardous waste generated in the decomposition process.
"However, even with new landfill construction and close regulation, over time, landfills can still leak," Miller said. "It's possible that the metals can leach out of the landfill and get into groundwater."
A serious problem
The problem of electronic waste continues to grow rapidly in Maryland. MDE estimates that residents will discard approximately 42,714 tons of electronics this year -- only a small portion of which Miller said ultimately will be recaptured.
"We believe that we are probably capturing, through our current electronics-collection activities, a very small portion of the electronics that are generated for disposal," she said.
Nationally, the problem is just as critical.
Miller noted a 1999 study by the National Safety Council, which projected that 63 million personal computers would be retired by 2003 -- "up for disposal or stored in somebody's basement or garage."
A report released earlier this year by the Computer Take Back Campaign, based in San Jose, Calif., and Californians Against Waste, with headquarters in Sacramento, estimated that by 2006, 59.6 million computers and televisions would be designated for disposal -- increasing to 99.3 million such machines by 2015.
But the problem is escalating because of increased technology, said Wayne Naylor of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington.
"It is a problem that is growing because the number of computers keeps growing," said Naylor, chief of the agency's technical support branch for the D.C. region. "With technology changing rapidly, every three or four years, it gets turned over very quickly and ends up in the waste stream."
Recycle, or find a salvager
The Green Business Network, a nonprofit group based in Washington that provides environmental information to companies, encourages firms to dispose of unwanted computers in one of three ways: store them, recycle them or donate them.
Alex Fevenko couldn't agree anymore.
Fevenko is the co-owner of Equipment Exchange Resources Inc., a computer salvager based in Jessup. He claims old equipment, upgrades it and resells it either from his store or at computer shows.
Utilizing recyclers has numerous benefits, Fevenko said, including taking a firm's mind off the problem.
"If you're an insurance company," he said, "You're worried about insurance. You're not worried about getting all your money back on your Cisco routers."
The salvager also accepts full responsibility for the machines, and they are able to break down the computers they cannot sell into its basic components.
"It's all in writing," Fevenko said. "We sign a contract with you, so once we pick up and leave your site, we're responsible. If monitors are found in the river, and they have your tag, we're responsible."
In addition: "We take a lot of the stuff to what I call the raw disposers. Baltimore Metal will take the metal; another company will take the plastic," he said. "The wire goes to a wire place, where they strip off the plastic and recycle it -- and then they take the copper."
Sensitive data, security issues
But one issue companies face in disposing of their old computer equipment is security. Hard drives need to be wiped clean to protect sensitive information.
One Baltimore recycler, Computer Donation Management Inc., guarantees the "certified destruction of all proprietary data."
"Some customers ... require that we provide a service to where we guarantee the destruction of any data," said Mike Fannon, the company's co-founder. "Some of them want physical destruction, in which we deform the hard drive itself.
"We make it so it's not readable unless you send it off to a computer forensic scientist," he said.
Fannon added that he still could resell these computers, he said, because of a ready market for units missing hard drives, if not other machine parts.
For companies that don't require such drastic security procedures, Fannon uses other methods.
"Another thing we do is, if they don't need or require physical destruction, there is software that will basically overwrite the data that is on the hard drive," Fannon said. "Depending on the number of times you request to overwrite it, it will sort of guarantee that it will take somebody short of the [National Security Agency] to recover that data."
Wiping clean a hard drive the standard three times usually takes about 100 minutes, Fannon said.
Other disposal options
Sending equipment back to its original manufacturer is another way to recycle old computers. Most major computer manufacturers, such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett Packard Co., will reclaim their equipment for a small fee. They even will accept products from other manufacturers.
In fact, Hewlett-Packard, based in Palo Alto, Calif., said last week that it would expand its recycling program for personal computers and other electronic devices to one billion pounds over three years. The company, the nation's No. 2 computer maker after IBM Corp., has recycled 500 million pounds of electronic waste since 1987.
One billion pounds is equal to about 400,000 passenger cars, H-P said.
For businesses with only small numbers of computers that need disposal, they can use electronics-collection sites at county landfills around the state. Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Wicomico counties have permanent electronics-collection sites at various landfills.
The Maryland Department of the Environment's also has a calendar of eCycling events, an electronics-refurbishing and recycling program. Equipment is collected at municipal centers, retailers and charities.
Maryland collected 861 tons of electronic equipment through these events from Oct. 1, 2001, through Dec. 31, 2002. About 99 percent of the machines were recycled, officials said.
The eCycling events were so successful that the Maryland General Assembly recently passed legislation requiring the state environment agency to study whether to establish a permanent electronic waste-collection system statewide.
"The idea came out of the fact that electronics have hazardous substances in them, so we want to make sure we dispose of them in an environmentally safe way," said state Rep. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard), the bill's co-sponsor. "Put that together with the fact that businesses -- and even more importantly individuals and families -- have two, three, four computers in their basement and can't find anyone to take them."
The best solution to the problem is environmentally friendly equipment, Naylor said.
"The EPA is working with manufacturers to take a look at using e-friendly computers," he said. "The federal government, being the largest computer purchaser in the world, is developing standards where we procure and look for the best environmentally designed computers. We believe this helps move manufacturers in the direction they need to go."
Consumers should buy computers with fewer toxins, Naylor said, as well as have recycled parts. Companies also should offer leasing or take-back options. While such environmentally friendly machines may cost more, some might be willing to pay extra. Others may not because such machines often contain used parts, he said.
"A lot of people, when they realize they have harmful components in their computers, would pay more to help the environment," Naylor said. "I think that definitely some would, but not everyone."
He added that many organizations could use recycled equipment.
"School districts accept computers that are a few years old because they think it is better than having no computer at all," Naylor said. "You can extend the life of a computer by donating it to an organization -- and when it is ready for disposal, you can get it into a recycling program."
On such effort is the Phoenix Project of the Maryland Education Department. The project refurbishes donated computers and provides them to individual students, schools and education-based community groups. The effort receives a number of its machines from a program sponsored by the Maryland Highway Administration.
The highway administration is required to recycle a certain portion of its waste, donating thousands of computers because it upgrades its equipment at regular intervals.
"We have a four-year replacement cycle for the computers, a six-year replacement cycle for our printers, and a three-year replacement cycle for our servers," said David Buck, an administration spokesman.
Buck estimated that the Phoenix Project received 871 of the 2,117 computers the agency donated to schools statewide last year. Those contributions help the Phoenix Project give away 2,000 machines every year -- and more than 20,000 since its inception in 1993.
"We gave 600 computers to Carroll County, which they put in every middle school that wasn't a brand-new school," said Darla Strouse, the education department's executive director of corporate sponsorships. "Their science classrooms are just replete with computers -- and they have adopted a whole software-system approach to teaching. Probably every community has gotten computers from us."
Whether it's recycling, donating or storing machines -- the problem of what to do with aging computer equipment cannot be ignored, said Fevenko, the Jessup computer salvager.
"If it's not done, and everyone doesn't get on this bandwagon, you're going to mess this environment up worse than it already is," he said. "And it's getting bad out there."