As customers line up to buy new PCs capable of running Microsoft's new Windows Vista OS, vendors like Dell and Hewlett-Packard (HP) are preparing to process a surge of discarded, outmoded computers.
Dell advises its customers running Vista Premium to use a PC loaded with a dual-core processor and 2G bytes of memory. As customers upgrade to meet the new standard, they face a question of how to dispose of their outmoded machines without dumping toxic lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium into local landfills.
"As enterprises deploy Vista, they may increase their rate of replacing, refreshing or updating PCs, and we're certainly happy to work with our customers on the disposition of machines they take out of service," said Michael Cuno, a spokesman for HP.
Vendors such as Apple and Dell offer in the US free recycling for anyone returning those companies' old PCs. Dell also runs a network that donates working computers to local nonprofit groups. HP directs consumers to drop-off points at retail stores, but advises its business customers to lease their hardware instead of owning it.
Dell said it was too early to tell if Vista adoptions would be fast enough to drive a surge in consumer recycling, but the company did say it had recorded an increase from 22.7 million pounds of equipment collected from customers in 2004 to 39 million in 2005. The challenge in predicting future rates is that individuals don't always dispose of their old hardware immediately, said Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton.
"We often see, at least anecdotally, consumers who purchase a new computer 'pass down' the old system within the household," Hilton said. "If you have the latest and greatest running your home entertainment center, maybe the system that still works just fine but is no longer cutting edge is good for other household uses. What we of course do not want is the old computer to end up in a closet or storage for the next several years and that's where the challenge of consumer education comes in."
Corporate IT managers who discard outmoded PCs face more complex challenges than consumers, since they must also worry about protecting valuable trade secrets and employees' personal data saved on hard drives, and since environmental safety regulations vary widely between states or countries, said Jim O'Grady, managing director of technology value solutions for HP Financial Services Americas.
O'Grady's division treats that stream of discarded computers as a business opportunity, finding new users to buy 94 percent of the 600,000 computers and parts delivered annually to HP's facility in Andover, Massachusetts. The factory sends only six percent to its recycling plants in Roseville, California and Nashville, Tennessee. Worldwide, HP handles over 1 million PCs returned at the end of their leases each year.
That number could jump in 2007, since customers scramble to upgrade their hardware after each jump in technology -- such as the launch of multicore processors, the advent of flat-panel monitors over CRT cathode ray tube) monitors or the sale of Windows Vista.
"That's what we saw with dual-core [processors]; it made a big difference, the adjustment had been fairly steady before then," he said.
HP accepts hardware from all vendors, often receiving servers built by competitors two decades ago. In the Andover warehouse, workers peel shrink-wrap off pallets loaded with CRT monitors, stacks of Toshiba Satellite and T3100 notebooks, EMC Symmetrix and Clariion storage arrays and servers like the Appro, Digital Vax and Compaq Alpha. Dell Latitude notebooks and Compaq Deskpro desktops are piled on shelves, with their peripherals sorted into nearby crates.
The technicians clean dust and rust off the frames, and decide whether they can resell the entire machine or just its most valuable parts, like the processor or optical drive. They prepare hard drives for resale by wiping personal data clean with either powerful magnets, software overwrites or physical destruction.
Most PCs never reach recycling stations. HP says that owners turned in only 7 million of the 70 million computers that became obsolete in 2003, delivering the rest to municipal solid waste handlers, many in developing nations overseas that lack the environmental regulations or technology to process such toxic "e-waste."