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Sending old PCs up the river

Inmates at a new federal prison in California will soon be able to join the high-tech economy via the burgeoning field of electronics recycling.

Inmates at a new federal prison in California will soon be able to join the high-tech economy via the burgeoning field of electronics recycling.

The U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., which is set to open this quarter, will employ approximately 350 prisoners in the handling of PCs, monitors and related devices that have reached the end of their useful lives in government agencies and private enterprise, according to Larry Novicky, general manager of recycled electronics products and services group Unicor. Unicor is the trade name of Federal Prison Industries, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

When the aging electronic goods get to the Atwater facility, the inmates will test them and then put them onto one of two tracks. The devices will either be cleaned up for resale or donation, or they will be "mined" for materials including glass, plastics and copper wiring.

"We believe we are only part of the solution for the 'e-scrap' problem in this country," Novicky said. "Our niche is providing cost-effective labor to deal with end-of-life products."

Unicor provides the recycling services to federal, state and local governments, private-sector businesses and not-for-profit agencies. It relies on recyclers and reprocessors to collect and transport the electronic goods and parts.

Novicky said he has also had talks with high-tech companies such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Apple Computer. "We're an excellent fit to work with large OEMs," he said.

Obsolete computer equipment has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as businesses and consumers cast off old models for ever newer ones. The National Safety Council says that 20 million PCs became obsolete each year in the United States in the late 1990s.

It isn't just a matter of finding space for all the computers gone kaput. Electronic equipment is larded with materials such as lead, mercury and plastics that, improperly disposed of, could pose health hazards.

Coming clean refer For those reasons, environmental groups and governments from Europe to Japan have been debating and enacting laws that would prevent computer goods and household appliances from going into landfills and would require recycling and reuse--at the expense of either the manufacturers or the end users. The United States has seen less action on the governmental front, but electronics makers have been experimenting with take-back programs.

A member of California's Integrated Waste Management Board said the Atwater facility would have to meet state requirements for disposing of hazardous waste. He added that he expects initial capacity at Atwater of up to 5,000 CRTs (cathode ray tubes) per day, with the potential for twice that amount eventually. California bans CRT monitors from landfills, out of worries that lead and other metals could leach into water supplies.

Meanwhile, critics have blasted prison labor as unfair both to the inmates and to the private sector because of wages that are well below those paid outside prison walls. They also raise the question of occupational safety, given the inmates' proximity to potentially toxic materials.

Toxic labor?
"Atwater is just the latest and probably the worst" example of inmates being exploited in the name of providing them with job skills, said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), an advocacy group. "It's pretty clear that it's a way to use a low wage, but really it's an involuntary servitude type of approach to dealing with e-waste, and I think that's pretty scandalous."

Novicky, who declined to specify how much prisoners earn, has a ready counter to that charge. "My cost structure is so different from the private sector's--I have security costs they never, never could imagine," he said. "My staff-to-inmate ratio is so different from foreman-to-general-worker ratio...So overall, we're market competitive, and that's what we want to be."

The money the inmates earn goes into an "inmate responsibility" fund, which helps to cover child support, alimony and court costs, as well as commissary privileges and money for when the prisoners are released.

SVTC's Smith pointed to the need for the electronics industry to develop a recycling and reuse system that is producer-financed--that is, underwritten by the makers of PCs, TV sets, printers and so on.

"The U.S. is the main global laggard in this whole issue. Since we have refused to embrace producer responsibility, we're relying on prison labor instead," Smith said.

But an executive at one of the largest handlers of obsolete electronics in the country took a more benign view of Unicor's recycling mission.

"We'd be happy to work with the federal prison system, with the caveat that none (of the waste) be landfilled or exported to the Far East," said Doug Steen, president of Belmont Technology Remarketing, based in Chicago. "The bottom line is that no incremental lead enters our society."

A typical computer monitor could contain 4 pounds to 6 pounds of lead.

Unicor has been in the electronics recycling business since 1996. The Atwater facility, located at the former Castle Air Force Base in central California, joins similar operations at prisons in Florida, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. Two other e-scrap facilities will open in Pennsylvania and Texas by the end of the year, Novicky said.

With 50,000 square feet of production area and an additional 30,000 square feet of storage, Atwater will probably be about twice the size of the other facilities, Novicky said. It should begin operations in March, though it won't be fully operational until the end of September.

Unicor, which operates 110 factories in 90 locations, receives no government subsidies and must be self-sustaining through the sale of manufactured goods, Novicky said. Products range from medical apparel and terry-cloth towels to office furniture and license plates for federal vehicles.

The inmate labor is voluntary, Novicky said.

"We work them hard, but they enjoy it," Novicky said. "They like to be productive; they like working on electronics, frankly. It's technology--it beats sitting at a sewing machine or making furniture. It provides them the opportunity to learn something that, quite frankly, they can use when they get out."