Recycling not easy for PC makers

Companies like HP and Dell are becoming more involved with recycling their machines. And they're seeing how hard it is to deal with the products Silicon Valley produces.

6 min read
What goes around comes around.

That's a lesson the computer industry is learning the hard way as it tries to develop workable plans for recycling the millions of PCs, monitors and printers that have been assembled in recent years.

Companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell Computer are starting to become more involved with the recycling of their machines--and in the process, they're seeing firsthand how hard it is to deal with many of the products Silicon Valley has produced.

The upside is that by examining the recycling process, computer makers are starting to change the way they build their gear, making it easier to dispose of the volumes of obsolete systems--and a handful of potentially toxic ingredients they contain--in an environmentally friendly way. Although many PC makers have a long way to go with their recycling efforts, some of the lessons learned are already showing up in new designs.

For example, HP found that it's no simple task to remove the mercury filament from its older scanners. But doing so is an essential part of the recycling process, since a relatively small amount of mercury could poison a huge batch of recycled gear.

"That (product) was not designed with recycling in mind," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "It was not even thought about."

As another Earth Day rolls around, looming regulations are prompting companies to devote more resources to establishing programs to recycle existing products. Smith's organization is part of a coalition that wants to see all electronics makers become involved in the disposal of the products they've made and sold. The hope is that by having to take back their own gear, as HP has started doing, electronics makers will be more apt to change the way they design that gear.

"The more they become familiar with these end-of-life concerns, the more likely it is they close the loop," Smith said. Some changes are easy, like making it simpler to remove the filament from the scanner. But Smith said that the bigger challenge for PC makers is in redesigning their products so they don't use so many toxic compounds to begin with.

Elements such as mercury and lead, and other more complex chemicals, aren't generally considered dangerous when PCs and printers are in use. But environmentalists for years have warned of the potentially toxic effect of those ingredients when the products become scrap and are incinerated or dumped into landfills.

Bad grades
A recent report card by Smith's organization gives U.S. computer makers relatively low marks for removing such materials from their products.

"What we found for the fourth year in a row (is that) it's really the Japanese companies that are ahead," Smith said. Many Japanese manufacturers have goals and timetables for removing lead, found in circuit boards and monitors, and bromine, used as a flame retardant in plastics. "They are being driven, as everyone else is, by European regulations," Smith said.

The Japanese companies see a competitive advantage in staying ahead of the laws, Smith said. NEC, for example,

Special Report
Coming clean
Who will pay for costly
hardware recycling?

introduced a PC last year that has a completely recyclable case and whose circuit boards are entirely free of lead.

That's not to say U.S. companies have done nothing on the recycling front. Large companies such as HP, Dell and IBM have been taking back gear from corporate customers for years, but the increasing threat of legislation requiring all products to be taken back has prompted many companies to make end-of-life issues more of a priority. These days, companies are scrambling to launch new programs and are offering incentives such as coupons to those who recycle their old gear.

And it's not just PC and printer makers that are getting in on the act. On Monday, cell phone carrier AT&T Wireless announced a program to take back unwanted phones. Those that can be salvaged will be donated to the Red Cross, while other phones will be recycled.

Ultimately, regulations in the United States and elsewhere could force all electronics makers to be responsible for the costs of disposing of their obsolete gear. European regulations, in particular, are placing the responsibility on the maker of goods, rather than on the businesses or consumers who use them.

As a result, electronics makers have an incentive to change the way they design products, to lessen their burden in the years to come.

In many cases, that means ending practices such as embedding metal screw fasteners inside plastic cases or blending various types of plastic together. It also means phasing out hazardous materials.

What's in a label?
Sometimes it's the little things that add up. For example, HP found that one of the impediments to recycling some of its gear was the multilayered HP logo that's stuck on the products. The company has taken off a few of the slick coatings, with the result being a logo that is more subdued, but also more environmentally friendly.

But HP is also thinking about the big picture--the fact that it is creating millions of PCs and printers that will be obsolete in a few IMAGE TEXT HERE years. Inside its laboratories, the company has working samples of an inkjet printer that features a plastic shell made from corn rather than petroleum. The shell is designed to be durable enough for its useful life, yet biodegradable with the right combination of sun, soil and moisture once its printing days are over.

The company has no timeline for when such a product might find its way onto the market, though. And when it does come time to recycle such gear, it won't be by putting it in the compost pile with last night's dinner scraps. Such a printer will still need to be sent to a computer recycling center to separate the shell from other components.

Computer makers seem to do best when their economic interests line up with environmental goals.

For example, Dell's systems have become much easier to recycle as a byproduct of the fact that the company has made its systems easier to put together. By shaving minutes off of the time it takes for workers to build one of its desktops, Dell helps cut costs and improve its efficiency. In addition, those machines also happen to be easier to deconstruct.

With no tools necessary to disassemble a Dell, the average desktop can be taken apart in two minutes; more complicated workstations take only twice that long. "That helps with recycling," said Don K. Brown, director of environmental affairs for Dell.

Conversely, changes made for environmental reasons can also benefit the bottom line.

"There isn't a disconnect between value from an environmental perspective and value from the business perspective," said Walt Rosenberg, HP's vice president for social and environmental responsibility. "I think they go very much hand in hand."

However, when the two goals are in conflict, the industry's track record is less strong. For example, the most ecologically sensitive way to handle an inkjet cartridge may well be to refill it several times before disposing of it. At the same time, printer makers like HP get most of their profits by selling replacement ink and toner cartridges.

So although HP doesn't prevent customers from refilling cartridges, it is also not promoting the practice. Instead, the company encourages customers to recycle cartridges after their initial use.

Recycling is not the only concern when companies try to design gear with the environment in mind. For example, some materials might make a product more ecologically sound at the end of its life but be far less energy efficient while running.

"It is a trade-off," said John Burkitt, head of HP's Design for Environment effort. HP has developed a formula to try to weigh the various costs when designing new products.

Reader Resources
PC recycling
CNET White Papers

Sometimes it's a matter of swapping one hazard for another. For example, flat-panel monitors are far more energy-efficient than traditional displays and also don't include lead. Dell's Brown estimates that the adoption of flat-panel displays has saved 100 million pounds of lead from being included in CRT displays. But for their many benefits, LCD displays do include a small amount of mercury as part of the backlighting.

"Essentially, you are trading one (hazardous) material for another," Burkitt said.

So how do these efforts stack up?

It's a little early to say, according to Scott Cassel, director of the Product Stewardship Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

But in regard to the European regulations on hazardous materials, Casell said, most companies are "not quite there yet."