Where PCs Go to Die

What to do with computers that have passed their expiration dates? John Janthor, vice president of information technology at L.A. Weight Loss Centers, is quite happy to kick over the job of getting rid of them to someone else.

“We don’t want to deal with it,” he says. “Typically, disposal is a real challenge. You can’t just rent a truck and drive it down to the local trash hauler.”

The Horsham, Pa.-based chain of 850 weight-loss centers ships old computers back to its original supplier, PC Connection, which either refurbishes the systems for resale or breaks them down to salvage their components. “We’re not looking to recover any value,” Janthor says. “We just want to get rid of them.”

As “e-waste” grows, several players are stepping up their services to cart it away. Vendors who handle PC disposal include Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM; resellers like PC Connection; and specialized firms including Chasm Industries, Newmarket IT and Redemtech.

Newmarket IT, for one, just bought a 120,000-square-foot facility in Austin, Texas, formerly occupied by Dell, a move CEO Jeff Zeigler says will quadruple its processing capacity. The company, which announced $50 million in venture capital funding in July, also expects to open a plant in Reno, Nev., to supplement existing plants in Austin and Richmond, Va., that process an average of 5,000 computers a day.

Zeigler estimates the market for electronic-equipment processing to be $1.5 billion annually and growing 45% per year. “There’s a huge demand for companies going through a technology refresh,” he says. “They need to pay attention to the data on the machines they’re getting rid of and the downstream disposition of those machines.”

There’s another headache these disposal companies say they help customers avoid: having to navigate the numerous environmental regulations that govern the handling of e-waste. In 2005 alone, 30 electronics-recycling bills were proposed in 23 states, with two more at the federal level, according to a July report from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Technology Policy.

This patchwork of laws makes disposing of PCs nationwide complicated and inefficient, the report notes, but so far there’s no consensus by industry or policymakers about what a national system for recycling should look like.

Then there’s the danger that a used PC’s data will still be readable after the machine is resold—potentially exposing corporations to fines or criminal prosecution under privacy laws, says Gartner analyst Frances O’Brien. Surprisingly, some companies don’t have a real plan for dealing with dead computer equipment. “I.T. organizations may think they have a strategy for disposing of PCs,” she says, “but it’s often handled as an afterthought.”

Others, though, do have their act together. FedEx Kinko’s Office and Print Services, for example, consolidated all of its information-technology asset disposal with IBM in June 2004. Larry Rogero, director of environmental affairs for the copying and printing chain, says the company moved to one provider—and adopted a formal policy for disposing of I.T. equipment—mainly to ensure that its old computers, printers, monitors and other electronics were handled in accordance with environmental regulations. Previously, it had used different local disposal firms.

“We wanted to make sure this waste was being handled onshore in North America, and not being shipped to Third World countries and dumped there,” he says.

In the fiscal year that ended in May 2005, FedEx Kinko’s processed 70,000 pounds of equipment through IBM. The following year, that shot up to 340,000 pounds, which Rogero attributes to having a companywide strategy in place.

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