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Dell to get green with PC recycling

The PC maker is getting set to announce a program to offer PC recycling to consumers. Environmental groups and others say it's time we rid the world of "e-waste."

Dell Computer is getting set to announce a program to offer PC recycling to consumers.

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Details of the program are being finalized and will be made public within the next day or two, company spokesman Bryant Hilton said Thursday. Under similar programs from other manufacturers, consumers pay a fee to the PC manufacturer to dispose of old equipment.

The recycling program would join existing options for Dell customers looking to unload old PCs. Through its DellExchange system, set up in December 2000, consumers can trade in old computers or monitors regardless of the brand, sell the equipment via auction, or donate it to a nonprofit organization.

Dell also offers recycling to corporate customers through its asset recovery services.

Still, a recycling program for consumers would be a big step for Dell. The Texas-based computer maker is the No. 2 seller of PCs in the world, right behind the new HP, but it is growing at a rapid rate. HP, however, has seen market declines recently and is in the middle of consolidating operations with recently acquired Compaq Computer.

For that reason, environmentalists and others have been looking to the company to get more in tune with growing calls for PC recycling. Activists are worried about overflowing landfills and the threat of toxic leakage from what has become known as "e-waste."

To date, Dell has yet to formally join in discussions on the topic with the National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative, or NEPSI. That group, whose members include representatives from manufacturers, recyclers, retailers, government agencies and environmental groups, is working toward establishing a nationwide infrastructure for collecting, reusing and recycling electronics.

The head of one NEPSI member group even suggested that if Dell didn't find a way to fit itself into an industry-backed, self-regulated system, electronics makers might find themselves more likely to be compelled by legislation.

"Everybody seems to be very freaked out about Dell," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Dell's lack of participation, Smith said, is "a major focus of contention" as the group looks to see "if there are ways to bring them to the table in a serious manner or whether they're going to try to stay outside of this whole thing."

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Electronics recycling laws are already in effect or under consideration in Japan and the European Union. In the United States, the focus has primarily been on CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors, which contain several pounds of lead, one of the elements considered to pose a serious health threat if improperly disposed of. Massachusetts and California have banned CRTs from landfills, and the California state senate is considering a pair of bills that would require retailers to collect a fee for every CRT sold.

Consumers already face some optional expenses related to recycling, and may before too long find them unavoidable. IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Best Buy, for example, charge a fee to people who elect to dispose of PCs, monitors and other devices through their recycling programs. Meanwhile, the NEPSI talks are pointed toward incorporating the cost of recycling in new PCs, computer peripherals and TV sets.

Dell's shareholders may get a chance to weigh in on the matter. Mutual fund company Calvert has proposed a shareholder resolution on e-waste to be voted on at the company's annual meeting in July. The proposal seeks for the company to take greater responsibility for disposing of "junked computers" through take-back and recycling programs. Failure to address the potential hazards of e-waste creates risks and liabilities that could hurt shareholders, Calvert says.

But Dell has a chance to keep that vote off the shareholder ballot, depending on the outcome of negotiations with Calvert. The PC maker would need to show that it can produce a feasibility study that would satisfy Calvert's requirements, according to Julie Frieder, environmental analyst for the mutual fund company.

"They've been very receptive and responsive," Frieder said. "If we can withdraw (the proposal), we think that's successful."

The companies should know by the end of next week whether the vote will take place, she said.

"We're pleased that they're taking steps to address the problem of e-waste and improve recycling programs," Frieder said. "They're such a big company and can have a big influence."

Hilton acknowledges that the company is in talks with Calvert--"we're finding we have common interests, common goals"--but says that the resolution isn't the reason for Dell's move toward recycling for consumers.

"It's something that customers have been looking for, and it's the right thing to do," he said.

Calvert's proposal has already appeared before shareholders at HP and at Gateway. At HP's annual meeting last month, it received 8 percent of the vote, or 92.5 million shares, and at Gateway's general meeting Thursday, it received 7.5 percent, the fund company said.

Dell recycling program plans were first reported in the Austin Business Journal.