Dell partners for PC recycling

The computer maker gets a little greener with a program designed to recycle consumers' outmoded PCs. Helping in the process: federal inmates.

5 min read
Dell Computer on Friday got a little greener with the announcement of a program designed to recycle consumers' outmoded notebook and desktop PCs.

The fee-based program, which will go into effect in September or October, will accept computers from any manufacturer, not just Dell. As earlier reported, it joins several other options for PC discards that the company offers through its DellExchange service.

The move is likely to provide some satisfaction to environmentalists and others who have been calling for the electronics industry as a whole to take greater responsibility for what's become known as "e-waste"--computers, printers, television sets, handheld gadgets and other devices that businesses and consumers have been tossing out in ever greater numbers in recent years.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that electronic goods account for about 2 million tons of trash per year in the United States, while the National Safety Council calculates that at least 20 million PCs are becoming obsolete each year in this country.

But although other companies such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM have launched services similar to Dell's in the last 18 months, it's hard to say whether consumers are actually taking advantage of them in significant numbers. HP, whose program began last June, says only that initial consumer response was not as great as it had hoped it would be.

Dell, like IBM and HP, has offered similar services to business customers for a number of years. Dell estimates that since 1991, it has recovered more than 2 million computers.

The Texas-based company hopes to draw people to its program by making it a simple series of steps, largely on its Web site, according to a company spokesman. Consumers will also need to arrange for shipping separately.

"There are very few barriers to the service, which should drive up the volume," said Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton. On the other hand, he acknowledged, "lots of consumers haven't thought about this step of the process, so there may not be immediate uptake in the program."

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Some recycling activists had been hoping for more.

"It's a program that's been tried by IBM and HP, and it's resulted in very little of substance," said Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit environmental group. "If it's a first step, that's fine, but if that's the be-all, end-all, it's going to do nothing."

The computers won't actually go back to Dell itself. Instead, they'll end up in the hands of federal inmates, through a Dell partner called Unicor--also known as Federal Prison Industries--which has been getting into the business of electronics recycling. Unicor representatives say the recycling labor is a step above other jobs that prisoners could have.

But Schneider and others see the arrangement as potentially little more than a high-tech chain gang. She points out that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is also headed in that direction.

"We have issues with that," she said. "We're working with recyclers to develop a true-stewardship pledge, so that if prison labor is used, there is a living wage and decent working conditions. At a number of recycling facilities, there are high levels of toxic exposure."

In fact, the threat of even more widespread exposure to toxic materials is one of the key drivers behind a push to get computer makers to make their products more environmentally friendly in the first place and to take greater responsibility for them at the end of their useful life.

Electronic goods such as PCs and monitors contain an array of metals and chemicals--lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and flame retardants, among other materials--that can pose a threat to environmental and human health if improperly disposed of. The high-tech industry has come under fire for its product designs, and activist groups have charged manufacturers with dumping e-waste in countries such as China, India and Vietnam.

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It's not only environmental activists who've taken note of the matter. Shareholders are also worried about the risks and liabilities posed by e-waste. Mutual funds company Calvert Group has gone so far as to file resolutions with Dell and computer makers Apple Computer, Gateway, HP and IBM, asking them to take greater responsibility for disposing of "junked computers" through take-back and recycling programs. HP and Gateway have already voted on the proposals, with approximately 8 percent of shareholders supporting it in both cases.

With its recycling program, Dell joins a growing list of companies offering programs intended to take aging electronics off the hands of consumers, who otherwise might chuck their old 486-based PCs--or even late-model laptops and cell phones--into the trash.

IBM, HP and Sony have launched initiatives that accept a range of spent devices, but especially PCs, monitors and printers. Retailers Best Buy and Staples have also gotten into the act, though in a more limited way, as have a number of municipalities.

There's a good deal of variety in the programs. IBM's and HP's are national, while those from Sony and Best Buy are limited to smaller geographic areas. HP and Best Buy accept any manufacturer's systems. Other than Sony, most also charge a fee: for instance, $29.99 for IBM, $13 to $34 for HP.

Dell says that the cost to consumers to dispose of their computers through its recycling program should be in the range of $15 to $25 for shipping, depending on the size and weight of the systems. Consumers will fill out forms on the DellExchange site and receive paperwork via e-mail. They'll then have to send the discards to one of four regional operations run by Unicor.

And for those worried about convicted criminals gleaning potentially sensitive information from old hard drives, Dell says that the drives will be destroyed separately from the recycling operations, in which the prisoners disassemble a PC into its various pieces.

The various end-of-life fees may eventually be supplanted by recycling costs that could be tucked in to the purchase price of all PCs, depending on the outcome of industrywide talks set to conclude in September.

That's because recycling isn't cheap. HP, for instance, says it pays recycling company Noranda to process high-tech scrap. Recyclers run the electronic equipment through shredders and salvage the constituent pieces, including glass, steel, aluminum and precious metals, which then get sold or reused in new forms.

Still, that may not be enough. The recycling system, manufacturers say, cries out for greater volumes of raw materials, improved cost efficiency and better markets for its products.

"We need to get a million pounds of a consistent grade of (plastic) material, and at this point we cannot get it," said Mark Small, vice president of environmental affairs at Sony Electronics. "We need to quadruple the amount of glass coming back."

Dell says its program should run at breakeven.

"Whatever the computer, there's some residual value left in it," Hilton said. "In every box there's a little bit of value, and that covers the cost of it."