Avoiding a Computer Wasteland

Out with the old PCcompanies should look to professional refurbishers to recycle wares in a safe, environmentally friendly, socially conscious way

A large number of companies and consumers upgrade to new computers every three or four years and therefore generate an incredible stream of discarded machines. In the U.S. alone, they ditched somewhere between 50 million and 75 million desktops, laptops, and monitors in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That amounts to as much as 1.15 million tons of hardware—or more than 3,000 tons discarded every day. And with sales of new computers growing each year, the waste stream only grows. Though many still work, the majority of these machines end up in landfills.

The primary concern for many companies—more than environmental considerations—is ensuring that sensitive data on their outgoing hard drives doesn't end up in the wrong hands. Some businesses sell their gear to asset recovery companies, which guarantee proper data disposal, break down the parts, and resell what commodities they can recover.

Another viable option is to donate old machines to a company that can refurbish them. Though an aging computer may be obsolete for business purposes, many still function on a level that can fill the needs of a classroom, a cash-strapped nonprofit organization, or a family buying its first PC. That said, given the data security concerns, donating old computers is not as easy as dropping them at the door of a favorite school or charity. And a haphazard approach may leave the recipient with a hodgepodge of half-working machines that can be hard to repair or properly configure for the organization's needs.

Recycling Expertise

That's where refurbishing companies come in, offering the expertise to securely erase data, restore machines to working order, and get them to people who need them. "To me, it's criminal to send all those computers to be ground up or just recycled when there's so much need here as far as reuse," says Pat Furr, chief executive of Computers for Classrooms, a nonprofit computer refurbishing company in Chico, Calif.

About 400 U.S. organizations refurbish computers, according to Microsoft (MSFT), which gives many of them discounted licenses to reload donated machines with the Windows operating system and other Microsoft software (see TechSoup's searchable list of Microsoft-certified refurbishers). These refurbishers provide restored computers to schools, nonprofits, and low-income families.

Good News All Around

But the recipients aren't the only ones who benefit. For starters, donors are heartened to find that refurbishers take erasing data seriously. "That's actually hard work to do it right," says Willie Cade, chief executive of Chicago-based Computers for Schools, which refurbishes 20,000 machines annually. At Computers for Classrooms, technicians do not even turn a machine on until they have removed the hard drive and wiped it clean of retrievable data and information.

Donating old machines also enables companies to comply with a growing maze of waste disposal laws. In some municipalities, businesses need to follow strict procedures in discarding computers and document the process in a way that can be verified by inspectors. In many cases, violations can lead to fines. But companies that donate their equipment are absolved of that responsibility. Even with machines that can't be salvaged for a second life, a refurbisher makes sure that any parts and materials that can't be reused get recycled instead of sent to landfills. "Making sure that someone else can reuse the equipment is the best choice legally and morally," says Cade.

Besides being eco-friendly, refurbishing has social benefits as well. Volunteer refurbishers gain technical experience working on computers that prepares them for jobs. Students and families get computers they can afford, helping narrow the digital divide. "There's a lot of electronics coming out, and yet there's a tremendous need for computers and electronics," says Furr. "All students and all people need access to technology."

Check out the BusinessWeek.com slide show to see how computers are refurbished at Computers for Classrooms.

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