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Recycling Computers
The End of the Road: Schools and Computer Recycling
As computers and other electronic devices become more prevalent in education environments, school technology specialists and administrators are faced with a challenge: What should they do with electronic devices that have reached the end of their life cycle? This challenge represents an opportunity for teachers and students to become aware of environmental issues and develop environmentally friendly solutions in their communities.  

Computers and related electronic devices are becoming as common in the classroom as pencil and paper, and that's good news, because the value of educating students to become technologically savvy is undeniable. But the not-so-good news is undeniable, too: Like pencil and paper, and other classroom supplies, computers get "used up." They wear out. They may be incompatible with newer software or peripherals. They become obsolete.

All this poses a challenge to the environmentally responsible school: What to do with computers that have reached the end of their life cycle?


According to the Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report, published in 1999 by the National Safety Council, the estimated average lifespan of a computer monitor is 4-7 years; of a printer or scanner, 3-5 years; and of a personal computer itself, just over 3 years. In 1998 alone, nearly 21 million computers became obsolete. Yet according to the National Recycling Coalition, only about 11 percent of computer equipment is recycled, and another 3 percent is reused.

Fortunately, the number of personal computers being recycled is increasing and by 2005 is expected to reach some 60 million units a year, according to the Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report. Ambitious programs such as StRUT are extending the lifespan of many computers and increasing the percentage of those being recycled or reused.

Environmentally responsible management of electronic products is an important lesson students need to learn about technology.
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What's in a Computer
Part of the challenge facing schools wanting to recycle computers and other electronic devices has to do with what they are made of. Different components are recyclable to a different extent. While some parts and materials (and indeed, entire devices) are easily prepared for reuse, others require more expensive handling. As John H. Powers, general manager of the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER,, explains, recycling companies make this distinction by first sorting out devices that can be repaired or refurbished. Next they recover usable parts such as disk drives, memory, and microprocessors. Then they begin separating the materials that are left.

The most common materials in personal computers are steel (40 percent), plastic (40 percent), aluminum (7-10 percent), and copper (5 percent), plus a variety of heavy metals. The steel can be sold for scrap and printed wiring boards and components sold for their precious metal content. Most of the plastic, which makes up the PC enclosure, the monitor housing, keyboards, mouse devices, the printer housing, and other parts, can be recycled or used as a fuel in some industrial processes. The exception is when the plastic cannot be completely separated from metals, rubber, or painted coatings. Then it must be incinerated or sent to landfills.

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Solutions for Schools
Schools should do whatever they can to avoid disposing of computer and related equipment in garbage bins or local landfills. This may not be the most convenient approach initially, since most municipalities do not have recycling programs for electronics. However, there are numerous organizations throughout the United States that recycle electronics, and many of them can be found through the National Safety Council

Roughly 400 companies have electronics recycling operations in the United States, including some that specialize in recycling computer monitors. One such company, the Computer Recycle Center ( in Bedford, Texas, accumulates scrap computers from all over the country. "We can either sell whole computers at so much a pound once we have accumulated several tons, or go through the process of taking boards out of the computers to sell them, and selling the cases locally for scrap iron," says Bert Paine, the company's president. As Paine goes on to explain, the glass in computer monitors can be recycled in a smelting operation, and the lead recovered or resold overseas.

"Unless schools get themselves organized so they can put quantities together and go out for bid, they are dealing with one or two computers, just like a homeowner" -- John H. Powers, General Manager of the International Electronics Recyclers
Depending on the recycling company, a fee may or may not be required, so schools should shop around. Typically, the greatest costs associated with electronics recycling come from collecting and transporting the equipment. For this reason, school administrators might find it advantageous to establish a centralized drop-off location within their district, region, or county.

The IAER's John H. Powers elaborates on this idea with a number of recommendations. First, to minimize the cost of computer recycling and to benefit from economies of scale, schools should consider pooling and consolidating not only in terms of the drop-location but also through their contracts with recyclers. "Pooling gives you leverage in quantity and volume," Powers says. "It will be more attractive to a recycler if there are large quantities consolidated in one area because it minimizes the pick-up and transportation. Plus, in terms of pricing, if there is recovery value the larger the quantities, the more incentive there is."

Powers also recommends that groups of schools prepare a request for proposal (RFP) that can go out to a number of recycling companies for bids. "Unless schools get themselves organized so they can put quantities together and go out for bid, they are dealing with one or two computers, just like a homeowner," he points out. The IAER can help schools by identifying the member companies in the area. The National Recycling Coalition's Electronics Recycling Initiative provides sample RFPs for consumer and municipal electronic-equipment-collection programs. It also provides profiles of state and local policy initiatives and voluntary programs, as well as access to a database of local collection programs.

Schools just starting a recycling program can learn from pilot programs already in place. One is in Massachusetts, where a statewide ban on the disposal of monitors in landfills took effect in March 2000. With the help of state funding, a network of community and regional centers, including Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army, has been set up to receive equipment. Program organizers anticipate that 70 percent of the computers received can be repaired and resold, with the balance sent to the state's contractor for recycling.

Many states have grant money available for recycling programs. Schools should check with their local communities to determine whether such money is available in their area.

Important Lessons
As schools acquire more and more tools of technology to educate students, they face a growing challenge to recycle those tools. Within that challenge lies the opportunity to teach lessons not only on how to use the technology but also on how to manage it in an environmentally responsible way.

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External Links
   Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board (about a California school).
Computer Bank Charity (lists many organizations).
Computer Recycling for Education.
Electronics Industries Alliance (EIA)
International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER)
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