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Legislators eye PC recycling

August 2, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - One of the least sexy jobs in IT management may be disposing of old PCs, servers and other technology equipment. But it's a job that's getting a lot of attention from federal and state lawmakers who are concerned about high-tech waste.
Just before Congress wrapped up work for the summer, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) last month introduced federal legislation that would impose a maximum $10 fee on sales of desktop PCs, laptops and monitors to help pay for new recycling centers (see story).
A similar recycling fee plan is pending in the California legislature. Indeed, the Electronic Industries Alliance, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group that represents makers of PCs and other high-tech equipment, said technology recycling bills have been introduced in 24 states, most of which call for study committees to examine the issue.
Thompson said he has no expectation that his bill will pass this year. But he added that he wants to start a debate on how to safely dispose of PCs and monitors that include hazardous materials, such as lead, mercury and polyvinyl chloride plastics.
Most large U.S. companies currently contract with PC disposal services that are run by hardware vendors or specialized waste disposal companies.
Disposal fees average $25 to $50 per PC, according to industry officials. That includes the cost of erasing data and packaging and shipping the systems plus administrative expenses. Fees may also depend on the prices that used PCs can fetch in aftermarket sales.
For instance, Olathe, Kan.-based LLC charges companies disposal fees of $35 per PC. Resales can lead to rebates, said Kory Bostwick, the company's president.
But resale prices are in a continuing state of flux.
At one time, there were incentives for companies to resell systems after using them for the typical life cycle of three years, said Jim Tudor, who manages PC procurement at Alltel Corp. in Little Rock, Ark. Alltel, a $7.5 billion telecommunications and wireless services provider, has about 26,000 PCs.
But Tudor said he's now seeing a sharp drop-off in resale prices at the end of one and two years, due partly to rapid increases in processing power. That reduces the opportunity to get a good resale price after three years, he said.
At the same time, the life cycle of PCs is extending to four years at many companies, said analysts at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., and IDC in Framingham, Mass. They cited the economic downturn as a major contributing factor.
Some IT managers said they also don't feel as much pressure to rapidly upgrade their hardware in order to keep up with new software releases.
"I do think we're entering a period of diminishing returns on the successive generations of the software," said Jim Prevo, CIO at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. in Waterbury, Vt. "As we start to slow down the upgrades of the software, we will likely slow down PC replacement."
Ethical and environmental issues are also part of the looming debate over technology recycling. Thompson criticized shipments of used PCs overseas and argued that the U.S. is exporting its environmental problems.
But Robert Houghton, president of high-tech equipment recycler Redemtech Inc. in Hilliard, Ohio, said used PCs are often put to productive use in other countries. "If they weren't able to have access to that much less expensive technology, they wouldn't have any," he said.

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