What do you do with an old computer?
By DAVE GUSSOW/Times Technology Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 1998
AMPA -- Max Zalkin knows scrap. Mike Flynn knows hazardous wastes.
Together, they combined their businesses to handle what many fear will be a major environmental problem in coming years: disposing of old computers and other electronic equipment that are no longer usable.
"I wanted to get into a business that stopped us from putting things in landfills that should be recycled," said Flynn of F&M Bay/SEER Electronics Recycling, which he and Zalkin started as a combined operation last year.
Their Tampa warehouse overflows with computers, printers, phones and fax machines -- 50 tons or more a month getting processed.
Computers and other electronics contain a witches' brew of contaminants, such as mercury and cadmium. But of most concern are the cathode ray tubes in computer monitors and televisions, which contain a lot of lead.
It is a problem that is getting more attention from government agencies, environmental groups and others. Businesses such as F&M are forming to handle the problem, and while Flynn and Zalkin say they make a profit, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency noted that costs for this kind of recycling run high.
Studies estimate that up to 13-million computers are retired each year in the United States. Only 10 percent of those are recycled or reused, and about 15 percent end up in landfills or incinerators.
The remaining 75 percent? Closets, attics, garages, warehouses. People "don't want, can't bring themselves to throw them away," said Raoul Clarke, environmental administrator with the hazardous waste management section of the state Department of Environmental Protection (www.dep.state.fl.us).
"It's very hard to get a handle on (the number) but there's a bunch," Clarke said. Many estimates are based on sales figures for home PCs and do not include business, industry and government. Florida's state agencies alone have more than 500,000 computers, Clarke said.
Adding to the uncertainty of the potential problem the state faces is the year 2000, when many officials expect consumers to buy new computer systems that won't have a problem with date-challenged old software. And the introduction of high-definition television sets will mean a lot of older sets getting thrown away. HDTV could make 250-million TV sets obsolete, according to the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center.
While the Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov) classifies computers as hazardous waste for large businesses or those disposing of four or more at a time, regulating the disposal will be left to states and local governments. Florida may follow Massachusetts' example and ban cathode ray tubes from landfills, for fear that the lead in the monitors eventually could seep into the underground water supply. Clarke said the DEP will have a meeting in December that may start the rule-making process for such a ban.
If buried intact, a monitor doesn't necessarily pose a hazard. But if the glass breaks, the lead could leak.
Farouk El-Shamy, environmental-hazardous manager for Pasco County, did a three-month test this year in which electronic equipment of all kinds was collected at the landfill and then shipped to F&M/SEER. He did not publicize the project because he wants to gauge what the landfill normally receives. He is awaiting the report on what and how much was collected.
"I really got curious about finding an alternative way to recycle that stuff and make money out of it," El-Shamy said. "We are a long way from really doing anything, but it's a first step in the right direction as far as I'm concerned."
The National Safety Council (www.nsc.org) hosted the 1998 Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Conference this year in Washington, with manufacturers, recyclers, non-profit groups and government agencies among the participants exchanging ideas.
The EPA sponsored projects in 1996 and 1997 in Somerville, Mass., and Binghamton, N.Y., in which residents were invited to discard old electronics, similar to "amnesty days" for hazardous wastes.
The EPA's experiment underscored that the economics of electronic recycling will be a challenge. Costs ranged from $159 a ton to $886 a ton to recycle the electronics, compared with $75 a ton to handle junked equipment as trash or $90 a ton for traditional recyclables. The agency noted, though, that some of the costs were skewed by such things as transportation for a pilot project.
"If you want to recycle (computers), you won't find people who will pay and you won't find people who will take them for free," Clarke of the DEP said, because of the expenses involved in dismantling the machines and properly disposing of the hazardous materials.
F&M in Tampa charges its customers for labor, transportation and disposal, though it does not give out specific figures. One thing that makes it work is a ready and inexpensive labor supply. Seven of 10 workers at the warehouse are inmates from a nearby Hillsborough work-release center.
Flynn calls what the company does "asset management." F&M works with companies such as Florida Power, GTE, Chase Manhattan Bank, IBM and Progressive Insurance, along with Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa. F&M takes the discarded equipment and processes it.
In addition to the fees paid by customers, F&M sells equipment and parts that can be reused. Those that no longer work are taken apart for recycling and proper disposal, with the customer getting any fees collected. "You get value (back) where value exists," Flynn said.
Computers contain metals such as gold, silver and copper that in theory can be recycled. But Flynn and Zalkin point out that it is more profitable to sell a 386 processor chip for reuse at a profit of $10 to $12 than to sell the gold for 45 cents.
The 20,000-square-foot warehouse is packed with equipment. Cardboard boxes are filled with circuit boards. (They, too, contain lead.) The sound of power tools pierces the air, as computers are taken apart in minutes. Metal crashes on metal as a computer case is thrown into a bin. Chips from pay phones are pried from circuit boards and put in boxes.
The tubes from monitors that don't work are shipped to a smelter in Missouri. Working monitors and computers are stacked on pallets, to be sold to resellers. Some switches have mercury, which has to be disposed of properly.
Zalkin and Flynn say a key to making the effort work is educating business, government and consumers, raising awareness about potential risks of just dumping the equipment.
"They don't know what to do with it," Zalkin said. "They don't know where to go with it. We know how to handle it and where to go."
Flynn said part of the problem is that people paid big bucks for the machines and don't want to just toss them out. "People have a perceived value from the purchase," he said, and they don't think about it losing value.
If the state bans cathode ray tubes from landfills, Flynn expects others to get into the business, many of whom won't know what to do. (In Massachusetts, recycling electronics has an estimated $600-million annual economic impact and supports more than 12,000 jobs, according to a presentation at the National Safety Council meeting.)
Flynn has spent 18 years in businesses dealing with hazardous wastes, including as president of Secure Environmental Electronic Recycling and a company that handles fluorescent lighting with its mercury. He says a key to making a recycling program work is enforcement of whatever rules are put on the books.
Zalkin, whose company was involved in the demolition of the old Sunshine Skyway bridge, says he used to donate some old but working computers to schools. But these days, schools want machines that have more power and capabilities than the older ones F&M usually receives.
One of the goals for governments, agencies and companies tackling the scrapped-electronics problem is to have manufacturers "build it better today so we don't have this problem tomorrow," said Clarke of the DEP. "Companies that make the products are now getting more into take-back programs, but they don't want to deal with those that are out there now."