IBM Offers Green Way
to Trash Computers

By Dunstan Prial - The Associated Press

Now IBM Corp., one of the world’s biggest computer makers, hopes to provide relief to a problem some environmentalists see as one of the biggest solid waste issues to emerge in decades.
     Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM today is kicking off a program aimed specifically at individual consumers and small business owners, two sizable groups of computer users that up until now have struggled to find ways to rid themselves of unwanted computer hardware.
     For a fee of $29.99, IBM will accept all manner of PC parts through its IBM PC Recycling Service. The fee includes shipping costs, so consumers need only to box the equipment and send it via United Parcel Service to Envirocycle, a Hallstead, Pa., recycling firm. Consumers can sign up for IBM’s program at the time of purchase or by contacting IBM.
     “At IBM, we recognize as well as anyone else that advances in technology have unfolded at a breathtaking pace. As a result of the advancement in technology, there has been an increase in the amount of computer equipment that is either obsolete or that no one wants,” said Wayne Balta, IBM’s director of corporate environmental affairs.

Dangerous Disposal
Indeed, a recent study by the National Safety Council’s Environmental Health Center estimated that 20.6 million personal computers became obsolete in the United States in 1998, but only 11 percent, or 2.3 million of those PCs, were recycled. Moreover, the NSC estimates that 315 million additional computers will become outdated by 2004.
     For years, most of the unwanted personal computer equipment in this country has gathered dust in attics and garages.
     On a larger scale, the industry’s solution has been to ship much of the unwanted and environmentally dangerous parts to China, where weak environmental laws allow for a cheap but hazardous method of disposal.
     With the volume of obsolete equipment in the United States rapidly growing, environmentalists are becoming increasingly concerned that more and more of the parts — all of them laced with toxic chemicals — will accidentally wind up in public landfills not suited to the disposal of contaminated materials. Or worse, the equipment could wind up in illegal dumps.
     While the outside shell of a computer monitor and hard drive usually can be used again, most of the inner parts must be replaced either because they’re worn out or outdated. And it’s those inner parts that contain most of the hazardous materials, including lead, mercury and cadmium.

No Strings Attached
Balta said IBM’s service will allow the equipment to either be recycled “in an environmentally responsible way,” or donated to a worthy cause if the equipment still works.
     Usable equipment will be donated to computer-needy organizations, such job training and family services centers, through a nonprofit organization called Gifts in Kind International.
     IBM is billing the plan as a “no strings attached” service because IBM will accept any brand of unwanted equipment, and no purchase of any type is required. Most recycling programs operated by smaller computer retailers are conditioned on so-called trade-in policies, in which unwanted equipment is removed only if the consumer buys new equipment.
     IBM’s program also appears to be the first aimed at individual consumers and small businesses.
     Dell Computers Corp., for example, one of IBM’s biggest competitors, only collects outdated equipment from large customers with 20 or more used computers. IBM has a similar program for its big clients.
     A Hewlett-Packard Co. spokeswoman said a recycling program for individual customers is in the works and should be in place in a few months.

Good First Step
Environmentalists praised IBM’s program as a step in the right direction, but some warned that computer manufacturers and government agencies charged with handling waste disposal need to pay more attention to the issue.
     “The disposal of ‘dead computers’ is likely to be the next big solid waste challenge that our nation will have to deal with,” said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental health advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington.
     “A lot of cities and states haven’t really thought about what they’re going to do with this stuff,” he added.
     Massachusetts is a notable exception, having enacted in March the nation’s first ban on personal disposal of computer screens, television sets and other glass picture tubes in landfills or incinerators.
     Baumann said European governments are taking a more active position on the issue, noting that the European Union plans to require computer makers to take back their products at no cost once the equipment becomes outdated.
     Ideally, Baumann said computer makers will one day take the matter into their own hands by developing nontoxic material for use in building computer parts.

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