HP grindhouse: Where old PCs go to die

For worn-out electronic gear, the end of the road could be a Hewlett-Packard recycling plant in Roseville, Calif. Photos: HP's hardware graveyard

ROSEVILLE, Calif.--Being environmentally friendly is quite fashionable, but it's not exactly pretty, as I discovered at the Hewlett-Packard Recycling Center.

It's here that everything from video cassettes to server racks to notebooks, CRT monitors and multifunction printers go to die. But they're not allowed to pass away quietly; instead, they're ground and melted down to almost unrecognizable chunks of motherboards and copper dust.

It used to be that consumers just set old monitors or printers on the sidewalk with a "free" sign, and corporations sent massive shipments straight to the local landfill. But electronics recycling programs are getting much more attention these days, and governments have imposed strict regulations on how to get rid of electronics. So now when you ship a broken video camera or router back to the manufacturer, it could end up in a place like this.

I got to tag along for a tour of the giant--not to mention deafening and oppressively hot--suburban facility just north of Sacramento. My interest in this excursion was two-fold. First, I got to see old electronics hacked to shreds, which is just cool, and second, I got to wear a hard hat and safety goggles.

Corporations, particularly technology companies, are beginning to realize there are significant public relations and other benefits to having a green policy. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 3 million tons of electronic waste, e-waste, get dumped in landfills every year. That's potentially dangerous to consumers and the environment, as materials like cathode ray tube monitors contain lead and mercury, which when placed in landfills can seep into groundwater. And plastics don't biodegrade very well.

HP's recycling efforts are not directly beneficial to the company's bottom line. Though he declined to give specific figures, the product recycling operation in Roseville costs "millions of dollars" a year, said Kenneth Turner, HP's manager of product takeback operations.

"It's not profitable, but it's worth doing for our reputation," he said. Ensuring that the process is done the right way--not putting hazardous materials into the ground--also lessens HP's vulnerability to environmentally oriented lawsuits, he added.

The HP Roseville recycling facility processes 4 million pounds, or 24,000 tons, of electronic hardware per month, not counting ink cartridges, which are recycled at separate plants in Virginia and Tennessee. HP says it's been recycling its products since 1987, but mostly by taking back broken machines and swapping out the reusable parts. Ten years later, HP built the Roseville plant with what the company claims is the first electronics shredding machine.

The facility, which operates almost continuously, isn't just for HP products. Instead, many electronics companies send their leftovers, their unwanted and broken products there. The 200,000-square-foot facility receives what looks like up to half a football field's worth of unwanted electronics per day, including returns from individual customers.

Facing the air guns and screwdrivers
Inside the massive facility, pallets of gray copiers are stacked next to shrink-wrapped packages of mismatched monitors awaiting slow, painful deaths. But before they get to the grinding machine, most electronics first have to face a horde of men and women armed with air guns and screwdrivers.

Hunched over their desks in blue lab coats, the recycling center employees swiftly strip machines of their innards, separating them for the grinding process. One petite, affable-looking woman made quick work of a stack of black notebook PCs--folding the screen open, snapping the plastic hinge with a loud crack, removing the LCD screen, then flipping it over to remove both the main battery and smaller button cell battery. The PCs' plastic casing, batteries and screen are all divided and ground separately.

The hazardous materials--mercury bulbs in old CRT televisions and monitors, batteries, and inkjet and laserjet cartridges--are teased out and sent elsewhere to be melted down right away, but the rest face the granular shredder, which sounds as painful as it looks.

We tourists got to see the grinding action up close. Climbing the metal steps of the gigantic machine, we were met with a cacophonous rumble. My notebook and hands were instantly covered in a fine sheen of dust, or more likely, the remnants of unwanted technology. The first step of the process minces the material into 4-inch shards. The precious metals, like gold, silver, platinum and copper, are collected and sent to a smelter, where they are melted down and sold for reuse. What's left rumbles by on a conveyor belt for a second grind, this time into 2-inch pieces. A giant magnet then picks out the small pieces of steel.

Next is another conveyor belt with positively charged tubes on each end. The tubes create an Eddy current, which causes the aluminum pieces to bounce around, separating itself from the plastics.

The end result is a 5,000-pound box of silicon, glass, and plastic confetti, which is shipped out to a separate contracted facility and reused to make auto body parts, clothes hangers, plastic toys, fence posts, serving trays, roof tiles--and maybe even your next PC.

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