ITs Green Secret: Where Have All the PCs Gone?

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

Ever wonder what happens to your old office PC? It may not be as green as you'd think. So, here's the story on what your company can do about it.  

With CIOs focused on achieving the “green” data center by reducing energy consumed for cooling and shifting to server virtualization to cut power consumption, there remains a dirty little secret many IT organizations would just as soon ignore: where their old PCs end up.

“We estimate that 55 percent of all PCs are in the commercial sector,” says David Daoud, research manager for personal computing, PC Tracker, and green IT at International Data Corp., an IT research firm in Framingham, Mass. “In their effort to reduce their impact on the environment, many IT organizations have focused on the data center, but other angles of green IT have been essentially neglected.”    

The impact of that neglect on the environment worldwide could be huge. An estimated 1.8 billion pounds of PCs are retired worldwide each year, but only about half that amount—865 million pounds—is processed by recyclers, according to a report issued this month by International Data Corp. Although some of the remaining 900 million pounds of computer hardware is rebuilt or reused, much of it is just plain discarded into landfills or incinerated.

What’s more, a huge amount of so-called e-waste is handled by manual laborers working in electronic dumps in China, or by prison workers in the U.S. who break apart the machines for salvageable metals and materials. Both practices are considered irresponsible and unacceptable by such groups as the Electronics Takeback Coalition.  

Unfortunately, many IT organizations today fail to assume sufficient responsibility for the ultimate end-of-life destination of their fleets of thousands of used-up PCs. For instance, Daoud says one of the biggest means of disposal for corporations seeking to rid themselves of their rafts of obsolete PCs is to donate them to nonprofit groups. In effect, that means they have washed their hands of the problem.

“This part of the traditional IT lifecycle is not so green,” Daoud told attendees at IDC’s “Directions 08”, the research firm’s 43rd annual industry business briefing in San Jose, Calif. March 11. “IT organizations need a better understanding of where the product’s final destination will be.”

Instead of disposing of PCs or donating them, some companies, he says, may elect instead to retire them earlier and sell them to other organizations while they are still useful and marketable. But all companies should take a closer look at the IT manufacturer’s policy toward takeback before buying.

“If you buy the right product in the beginning, it will cost you less to recycle it at the end,” Daoud says.

Simply getting rid of the problem of PCs’ end-of-life disposal issue by donating them isn’t a responsible approach, Daoud asserts. “Typically that’s not good,” he explains. “Companies have been neglecting their environmental responsibilities through the donation process. In most cases, it just transfers the responsibility to a religious organization. It’s okay if they track where the boxes go, but not many organizations do this.”

In 2006, 40 percent of companies donated their used up PCs, while 30 percent sold or gave them to employees and another 30 percent recycled them. The most expensive route of disposal, Daoud says, is to refurbish PCs to be reused. The most expensive approach is to “cascade” or reimage the machines, at an average cost of $468 per machine. The cost per machine to donate them averaged $398. Other alternatives include remarketing the product, $192, and simply throwing it away, $255.

Daoud recommends IT groups query prospective PC vendors for a cost analysis and environmental assessment of their machines at end-of-lifecycle. They should “assist with the end to end lifecycle strategy,” he says. He also suggests that companies choosing to dispose of their PCs through recycling demand full access to the recycling site.

“Full access is important because there is so much ‘grey’ activity,” Daoud says, meaning shipping PC waste to developing countries for unsafe recycling or disposal there, or sending it to prisons where the machines are dismantled and processed with inmate labor.

“IT organizations should ask about the final destination of their assets, to find out exactly where their PCS will end up going,” Daoud says. “Even with some of the largest PC vendors, it’s not clear where these systems are going. The idea is that you want to avoid the use of the grey market, which is difficult to monitor.”

The Electronic Takeback Coalition maintains a list of recyclers that have pledged to adhere to certain corporate responsibility standards, including not incinerating e-waste or shipping it to China. “We review these recyclers, so companies should be able to find a responsible recycler on the web site,” says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of ETC, a consortium of environmental and consumer groups based in San Francisco. “Companies are waking up to the need for some due diligence here.”

In fact, PC purchasing decisions, which today are made largely on power and efficiency,  will soon take the end-of-lifecycle issue into account, Daoud believes. One reason for the change, he says, is the regulatory pressure that’s already being brought to bear, not only in the European Union, but in the U.S. as well. “The EU has been the most proactive legislator in this area,” he says. “In the U.S., there has been a legislation on a state by state basis, with 25 states enacting e-waste disposal laws.”

Of course, this situation isn’t making PC manufacturers happy. “Most IT vendors don’t like this patchwork legislation, and most are looking forward to some sort of federal mandate,” Daoud adds. The ultimate impact will be a higher cost for business, he says.

None of this is new to PC manufacturers, who in recent years, after been prodded by environmental and consumer groups, have launched their own PC takeback programs. “Most PC manufacturers have some kind of takeback program,” the ETC’s Kyle says.

For instance, Dell promises to take back any old PC that has the Dell name on it. Consumers buying a new Dell can select a free recycling option when they buy a new Dell. Hewlett Packard will take machines back for a fee that includes shipping. Lenovo also charges consumers a fee to take back a PC.

Apple will take back any brand of Mac or PC so long as you buy a new machine directly from Apple, not through a reseller. Within 30 days after purchasing a new machine, consumers can ship their old ones to Apple’s recycler using a free shipping coupon mailed to them after purchase.  Sony will take aback any machine with the Sony name on it. Toshiba takes back any of their notebooks for the cost of shipping.

IBM offers a buyback program for computers that still have value. Sellers of one to 250 items can get a quote online. For larger quantities, IBM offers other asset recovery options.

This article was originally published on 2008-03-13
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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