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Dell sees green in EPA computer, recycling pact

The company plans to supply the Environmental Protection Agency with computers and help recycle the organization's hardware over the next three years.

Dell has won a contract to supply PCs to the Environmental Protection Agency over the next three years, as well as help the regulatory body recycle its aging hardware.

The EPA said it plans to lease as many as 100,000 new machines from Dell over the course of the deal, which was announced at the Federal Office Systems Expo in Washington on Wednesday. Terms of the contract were not released. The U.S. government's environmental protection organization indicated that it is moving to the lease model as part of an initiative to lower overhead related to information technology.

Another significant element of the relationship is Dell's new role as the primary provider of hardware recycling services to the EPA. Gaining the business of the environmental agency is a surefire sign that the Round Rock, Texas-based systems vendor has won over some experts with its plans for keeping dangerous elements found in PCs and other devices out of the country's landfills.

In this capacity, Dell will advise the EPA on ways to reuse or recycle equipment, as well as on preferred methods for clearing files from retired machines and disposing of unwanted computers.

"It's important that our computer systems are disposed of in an environmentally sound manner at the end of their lifecycles, and we urge other government agencies to look at similar asset recovery models for their systems," Cliff Moore, director of technology for the EPA's office of research development, said in a statement. "This is the right thing to do."

Dell has increased the number of programs it has in place to help its customers discard obsolete PCs over the last several years, as have many other hardware vendors. Last year the company launched a pickup service for castoff PCs, monitors and other computer equipment, charging roughly $15 for every 50 pounds of material it removes. Dell also recycles unwanted printers for customers who buy one of its new machines; a recycling fee is built into the price of the new printers.

The company offers a similar program for printer supplies, such as ink cartridges. Dell previously released a study it conducted on computer recycling that found that only 10 percent to 30 percent of all the PCs sold annually are being recycled.

Growing waste
The EPA has been working for the past several years to make it easier for consumers and businesses to discard their aging systems.

The group believes that discarded electronic devices account for one of the fastest-growing components of the nation's waste production. EPA representatives have estimated that more than 250 million computers will be thrown out over the next three years. In 2002, the organization shifted its policies to discourage the flow of so-called "e-waste" to landfills and incinerators and promote reuse and recycling.

Under the current rule, if monitors are being considered for possible reuse, they would be classified as "products" instead of "waste," so they would not have to meet the waste requirements of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the overarching solid-waste regulations for the United States. Glass removed from monitors would also no longer be classified as waste, as long as it is used for recycling and managed under the requirements specified in the proposal. The glass panel of a CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitor is one of the main locations for lead.

In addition to expanding its environmental programs, Dell has agreed to disclose publicly what happens to the PCs it takes back and how they are handled. Environmentalists have historically voiced concerns about the threat of computers from the industrialized world being dumped on Asian nations.

More work to be done
Dell executives acknowledged that despite their increased recycling efforts, damage to the environment remains a concern for the company and the PC industry at large. Tod Arbogast, senior manager of Dell's Asset Recovery Services group, said everyone involved, from hardware vendors to consumers, has a responsibility to work harder to protect the environment.

"We still have a long journey in terms of creating awareness and sufficient programs to address the recycling issue," Arbogast said. "We'll continue to try to promote the idea of upfront disposal costs, but we're on a nice trajectory for improvement."

Arbogast said a significant trend is the growing awareness of the issue among consumers. He said that consumers tend to share the same concerns about the problem, including worldwide recycling logistics and the potential recovery of valued information from discarded machines.