Personal Computers Never Die — Not if Recyclers Get Ahold of Them

A bin of recycled computer circuit boards awaits recycling at Metech Recycling in Worcester, Mass.

A bin of recycled computer circuit boards awaits recycling at Metech Recycling in Worcester, Mass.

By Robert Israel

It may not yet be law in all fifty states, but increasingly, it is becoming so: computers that sit in landfills stay that way forever, so recycling, a better, cleaner and safer approach, is being mandated. Many states, 25 of them to be exact, are requiring citizens to recycle electronic items. In other parts of the world, rigorous legislation already exists.

Massachusetts is not one of the 25 states with a mandatory electronics recycling law in place. Each town in the Commonwealth has its own requirements for recycling. In Arlington, for example, a fee of $35.00 must be paid to the town, who then arranges for the electronic device to be collected. You can’t just leave your computer or old television set on the corner and expect it to be gone after the garbage truck rolls down the street. And if you fail to pay the fee or avoid affixing a green sticker to your electronic device, it will go uncollected and you can expect to pay a fine.

John Davis, editor of Product Stewardship Advisor, a newsletter that monitors environmental issues for electronics industries, says Taiwan, Japan and most European countries now have recycling laws on the books.

Increasingly, that is changing in the States, as more firms crop up devoted to recycling and consumers become aware of the dangers of having their dead electronics equipment sitting in landfills. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. generated 3.4 million tons of electronic waste such as televisions, cameras, and telephone, in 2011, diverting only about 25 percent of it to recyclers. This number is expected to increase as more awareness of the dangers of decaying electronics equipment becomes known. Computer components, when they break down, contain toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer.

Metech International operates a computer recycling plant in Worcester, Massachusetts. Founded in 1980, it now employs 50 people who assist processing of electronic waste.

James Gardner, a Metech spokesperson, said each brand presents its own challenge. For the most part, the older PCs are tougher to dismantle. On the other hand, some older models were designed with easy disassembly as a consideration. He estimates that it takes between 15 to 30 minutes to completely strip the computer down to its components.

“Micron and some of the AT & T machines come to mind as easier to dismantle,” Gardner said.

Metech extracts steel (around 25% by weight), aluminum (around 2% by weight) and copper wire (between 6% and 8% by weight) from each personal computer it recycles. What remains of the stripped down computers are heaps of plastic.

“Plastic is a headache,” Gardner said. “The plastic from older computers doesn’t recycle with the plastic from newer computers.”

Stephen Skurnac, president of Micro Metallic Corp., a Canadian company with a recycling center in Roseville, Calif., agrees.

“There’s no good way to separate the different kinds of plastics. No one wants it,” he said. “We keep it out of landfills after we strip it down by mixing it in with the metals and using it as a fuel substitute at our smelting plant in Canada.”

Micro Metallic Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and other firms have lobbied to ease stringent plastic recycling requirements, an effort that is ongoing.

Metech harvest millions of pounds of copper per year from dead computers and peripherals. The company conducts a free collection of used electronics each year, sponsored by an anonymous donor. Otherwise, Metech charges a fee for their services. Micro Metallic, a larger company, estimates it garners over 3 million pounds of copper per month.

There are also a number of states where prisoners are taking part electronic components for recycling, according to newsletter editor John Davis.

“Prisons are increasingly looking at employing inmates to refurbish computers as another way to teach job skills to inmates and even to make money,” Davis said.

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. An earlier version of this report appeared in Computerworld magazine.

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