HP's take on recycling

As California considers a bill requiring computer makers to recycle 90 percent of all PCs by 2010, Hewlett-Packard's efforts get a thumbs-up from a Silicon Valley environmental group.

5 min read
Most people viewing the carcass of an abandoned motherboard would see a useless collection of plastic shards and mangled wires.

Hewlett-Packard's Chris Altobell sees silver and gold.

Altobell is the marketing manager of HP's Product Recycling Solutions unit in Roseville, Calif., which processes 3 million pounds of used computer machinery each month, transforming giant corporate printers and cast-off 386 consumer machines into materials that can be spun into precious metals and plastic containers.

"We take those machines when people say, 'I've had this in my closet for years. I didn't know what to do with it,'" Altobell said.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP has been operating the Product Recycling Solutions warehouse since 1996 and has been recycling for nearly two decades. But these days HP is more eager than ever to tout its recycling prowess. Recycling has become a hot-button issue among tech companies in California, where the legislature is considering a bill that would require computer makers to arrange for the recycling of 50 percent of all machines by 2005 and 90 percent by 2010. Currently, just 20 percent of computing machinery is recycled, according to the bill.

SB 20 passed the state senate last month and is scheduled to be heard by an assembly committee Monday. Before becoming a law, it would have to be approved by the full assembly and finally by Gov. Gray Davis.

Few would argue with the idea of recycling computers rather than depositing them in landfills or, as is sometimes the practice, shipping them off for disassembly by workers in poor regions of Asia. According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), "e-waste"--dead computers and other consumer-electronics cast-offs--is the fastest growing portion of our garbage stream, with consumer-electronics devices also accounting for 40 percent of the lead in landfills.

However, manufacturers are critical of the California bill's recycling goals, which they say are well above the current recycling rates for other products such as plastics or cans. According to container-recycling trade groups, the recycling rates for aluminum cans and plastic bottles hover near 50 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Manufacturers also favor federal legislation over a series of what they fear will be disparate state measures.

What's more, the manufacturers claim that recycling computers is no easy task. Unlike traditional recyclables like bottles or cans, computer machinery contains hundreds of different parts and potentially dozens of different types of materials.

HP's efforts
HP recently demonstrated its recycling process for CNET News.com during a tour of its plant.

Humans used to handle the entire recycling process, but they've been largely replaced by a series of giant recycling machines, which crush and separate the remains of computers and printers that come into the plant.

A group of workers clad in safety gear first pulls out parts that might contain toxic materials, such as batteries and toner cartridges. Then printers, desktops and monitors are fed through a series of machines that smashes them to bits. Precious metals are sifted out and shuttled away to the smelting operations of HP recycling partner Noranda, where they are melted and shaped into pure copper products and gold bars.

HP said it doesn't stand to make much money from the precious metals. In fact, the company aims to make its entire recycling program a break-even operation. A standard moving-size box of precious metals extracted from the machines contains just $2,000 worth of precious metal. In addition, the company extracts a small amount of steel that is eventually fashioned into building materials such as beams or rebar by HP's recycling partners. Most of the machines processed at the facility come from HP's internal operations, but the company's consumer-oriented recycling program has become more popular recently, as people learn more about the potentially toxic waste generated by the products.

Through HP's Planet Partners program, people can arrange to have their old printers and computers picked up at their door if they pay the $17 to $31 to cover the cost of transporting and recycling their machines. In return, they receive a coupon for up to $50 they can put toward the purchase of an HP product. The company also will pick up computers and printers made by other companies; about half of the machines processed through the consumer recycling program do not originate at HP.

HP operates a similar plant in Nashville, Tenn., and plans to open another one in Brampton, Ontario.

Other computer makers have jumped onto the computer-recycling bandwagon. In May, Gateway launched a corporate recycling program. And in March, Dell Computer began to offer at-home recycling pickup.

"There's a huge demand out there for recycling," Altobell said.

HP has begun to redesign machines to make them easier to recycle. For example, the company has abandoned its hard-to-recycle glued-on labels that used to adhere to its toner cartridges.

"An industry model"
The program also has received kudos from environmental activists. In a report issued last week, the SVTC praised HP's program while criticizing Dell's partnership with UNICOR, which employs inmates at Atwater prison to disassemble the machines, sometimes requiring them to smash the machines by hand. The report compared the program to a "Dickensian world of prisoners condemned to dangerous work for little pay under backward conditions."

Lawrence Novicky, general manager of UNICOR's recycling business group, dismissed the report, saying it distorted facts and lacks scientific evidence. In a letter to the SVTC, Novicky said the program helps to recycle millions of computers. "We are doing our part for two noble causes: recycling and rehabilitation," he wrote.

The report, meanwhile, praised HP's program, saying it reduced worker risk by using a mechanized system and provided "an industry model that sets standards for factory prototype, worker health and safety, and provides examples for efficient recycling systems."

Nevertheless, HP representatives worry that the California bill would force them to expand the model so significantly that it would turn them into a mini-United Parcel Service, requiring them to drive trucks all over the state to pick up machines. They argue that the pickup program, in industry parlance, is not scalable. Instead, they would like to cooperate more with local governments, which already conduct curbside pickup of other recyclables.

Last year, Gov. Davis vetoed a similar bill, but he has indicated that he would like to see a recycling law this year. Lawmakers will grapple with the concerns of both sides on Monday.