Recycling old PCs and electronics is proving to be an expensive proposition.
Take, for instance, Noranda Recycling Inc., which recycles used electronics for Hewlett-Packard. Noranda officials told Congressional auditors that more than half of its costs for recycling old computers goes to workers to disassemble them, even though the company operates some of the most technologically advanced recycling equipment available. To remove one lithium battery from an HP computer requires the removal of 30 different screws.
Little wonder most old PCs, monitors, processors, and other electronics find their way into storage, in places such as basements, garages, and company warehouses.
Still, America faces a growing problem of recycling computers and electronics, a Congressional investigator told the Senate Tuesday. "The amount of used electronics is large and growing, and that if improperly managed can harm the environment and human health," John Stephenson, director of resources and environment at the Government Accountability Office, said in prepared testimony delivered to Senate panel. "Some data suggest that over 100 million computers, monitors, and televisions become obsolete each year, and that this amount is growing."
Few are recycled. Stephenson quoted a Environmental Protection Agency estimate that some 50 million existing computers became obsolete in 2003, but fewer than 6 million were recycled. Recycling is costly and inconvenient, and there are no federal standards.
Consumers who want to recycle their used electronics usually pay a fee and face inconvenient drop-off locations. Most local governments don't provide curbside collection for recycling of used electronics; it's just too expensive, Stephenson said. Localities offer used electronics collection services, for a fee, at local waste transfer stations.
Snohomish County, along Washington State's Puget Sound nearly an hour's drive north of Seattle, provides several transfer stations that charge consumers between $10 and $27 a unit for collecting used electronics and transporting them to recyclers. For many Americans, these transfer stations are not conveniently located, and rural residents could drive more than an hour to get to the nearest drop-off station, Stephenson said.
Most recyclers typically charged a fee. The GAO director said one Portland, Ore.-area recycler charges consumers 50 cents a pound to recycle computers, monitors, and televisions. That's $28 to recycle an average-sized desktop computer system.
Stephenson said recyclers charge these fees to cover the costs they incur when disassembling used electronics, processing the components, and refining the commodities for resale. Citing a 2003 report from the International Association of Electronics Recyclers, he said most recyclers and refurbishers in the United States cannot recoup their expenses from the resale of recycled commodities or refurbished units. Simply, the study concluded, the costs associated with recycling are greater than the revenue received from reselling recycled commodities, and that fees are needed to cover the difference. The study pegged the value of commodities recovered from computer equipment, such as shredded plastic, copper, and aluminum, at between $1.50 and $2.00 a unit.
Consumers and businesses taking old computers to refurbishers face similar fees to cover the costs involved in guaranteeing data security by wiping hard drives, upgrading systems, installing software, and testing equipment, Stephenson said. A program manager for a nonprofit technology assistance provider told the GAO that it costs about $100 to refurbish a Pentium III computer system, plus an additional licensing fee of $80 for an operating system.
The GAO didn't make any recommendations, but will study the situation further and will offer recommendations at a later point. But, Stephenson hinted that a national solution will seriously be considered.
"It is becoming clear, though, that in the absence of a national approach, a patchwork of potentially conflicting state requirements is developing, and that this patchwork may be placing a substantial burden on recyclers, refurbishers, and other stakeholders," he said. "A manufacturer in one state, for example, may have an advance recovery fee placed on its products, whereas in another state, the same manufacturer may have to take back its products and pay for recycling. Further, a retailer may have to set up a system in one state to collect fees on specific products and, at the same time, set up a different system in another state to take back a particular manufacturer's product."
A workable plan, if developed, to recover metals from old computers could be worth its weight in gold, literally. Computers contain precious metals, such as gold, silver, palladium, and platinum, in addition to useful metals like aluminum and copper. Stephenson said the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that one metric ton of computer circuit boards contains between 40 and 800 times the concentration of gold contained in gold ore and 30 to 40 times the concentration of copper, while containing much lower levels of harmful elements common to ores, such as arsenic, mercury, and sulfur.
"The energy saved by recycling and reusing used electronics is significant," he said, citing a United Nations University report that contends that as much as 80% of the energy used in a computer's life can be saved through reuse instead of producing a new unit from raw materials.