What Happens to a Computer When It's Recycled?

Every year, hundreds of thousands of computers find an afterlife at recycling programs nationwide. If you've ever sent in a clunker, there's a good chance it went to Dell [DELL], which runs one of the largest consumer take-back programs in the world. So what happens once your old PC buys the farm?

Chances are, it doesn't really die at all. "The intent of our take-back program is to reuse about 85% of the materials that come back," says Michael Murphy, Dell's senior manager of environmental affairs. But that's assuming your PC even makes it into take-back to begin with.

"Before we started our take-back program a few years ago, we did a poll," says Dell spokesman Sean Donahue at New York's Greener Gadgets conference, where I met he and Murphy. "People are much more interested in giving an old computer to a non-profit than seeing it recycled," he says. To that end, Dell has partnered with Goodwill, that hired people for new green-collar positions to oversee the donation program. They've also partnered with DHL, that will pick up your PC from anywhere in the country (and many locales worldwide)—for free—and cart it away to either recycling or Goodwill. (You can also drop your old PC at Staples locations nationwide, also at no cost.)

"Sustainability is an outgrowth of a successful business," says Murphy, who manages design for environmental specs, energy use, materials and packaging for Dell's PCs. But he's not just paying lip service to the movement; he's upfront about the potential for profitability. "If sustainable activities can't be made profitable, or they can't be assigned some consumer value, then they're probably not truly sustainable," he says.

But the consumer take-back program isn't profitable for Dell—at least not yet. It does get leveraged along with Dell's enterprise-level asset recovery, which is a lucrative suite of services that includes data destruction. But after several years running, the program has been a kind of loss leader. "It's necessary to bear that cost now to help encourage more responsibility from computer producers," Murphy explains. He says Dell plans to drive consumer take-back to scale, using the playbook that propelled Dell's front-end products to ubiquity. At that point, the thinking goes, the service will make the company money.

When a consumer sends back a PC, it goes through a triage process where usable parts are screened out, and everything else is sorted for disposal. Systems in good condition are flagged for reuse, and then refurbished and sold for a discount online, or auctioned off in a lot. Computers that aren't salvageable are torn down and screened for working parts, which are pooled to repair newer systems that can also be auctioned off or sold.

Unusable parts are separated into categories—plastics, cables, motherboards, metal—and sold off to recyclers. Anything that can't be sold, reused or recycled is incinerated to generate energy. This wheeling and dealing means that a lot of computers—Dell or otherwise, since the program is brand-agnostic—are saved from going into a landfill. "That's the purpose of the program," Murphy says.

It's not all about scaling up; Dell's take-back strategy has a tree-hugging dictum, too. The company has said that it wants to be the greenest technology company in the world, a goal that Murphy admits is asymptotic. "It's a journey; you never get there," he says. "And it's hard to establish the right measures of success. But if you can get industry to compete to deliver those measures, then you've created the right kind of environment."

Dell has taken great pains to make its own take-back program easier by designing its computers for quick disassembly and low toxicity. "If you visit our take-back partners, you'll see that Dell systems aren't the ones that are left over at the end of the day," Murphy says. "Some of our competitors produce PCs that are very difficult to break down and take apart."

Half the battle is in the materials themselves. The brominated fire-retardant insulation inside many laptops is a case in point; when improperly incinerated, bromine can release dioxins, that are considered a dangerous environmental pollutant. Once they get into the human body, they accumulate in fatty tissue where they are thought to become carcinogenic. "But we can't just change to the alternative du jour," Murphy says of brominated insulation, because the long-term effects might end up being worse. "We're trying to take a holistic, scientific approach. We're trying to design out the problem," he says.

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  • neilfabri

    I wouldn't recycle them in the first time. There is always someone in need of an old PC just to use it for the kinds drawing software or interactive lessons, or simply because it doesn't need anything else than play some music and check the e-mail.
    I am personally using an old Athlon processor powered PC in order to run a home webserver which helps me in testing small scale university projects.
    Last month I have given away my 6 years old laptop to my 5 years old niece. I just downloaded PC Health Advisor from internet and made sure that the OS is working corectly, I have uninstalled unnecessary software, run a registry integrity tool and finally add some interactive software designed for children.
    I found my action far better than recycling it. Even if it is old it can still help someone and I am glad I was able to reuse my laptop. There is always someone in need of an old PC somewhere; we should think donating them to poor children in 3rd world countries or so.

  • chris

    Computers can be reused by many people who may not have the ability to buy them new. We know how fast technology changes, and this makes computers obsolete very fast. However, many cant afford them new and while it may be obsolete, it may very well be new to another.

    Most computers should end up being reused as the best solution to safeguarding our environment.


  • david wayne osedach

    Unfortunately the vast majority of these returnables end up in the toxic waste camps of Third World countries.