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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.