Dell launches first free recycling program

dell_shareholders1Austin American-Statesman
Dan Zehr

Dell Inc. wants its old computers back, and it will pick them up for free. The company said Wednesday that it will provide free recycling for all its products worldwide, the first computer maker to offer such broad recovery services at no charge.

It previously offered free recovery only with the purchase of new Dell products, as most of its competitors do now. In the past, Dell charged customers who weren’t buying new products $10 per package to pick up equipment at their homes.

“This announcement is a breakthrough because Dell is the first electronics company to offer individuals free recycling for all products the company has put on the market worldwide,” Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, wrote in an e-mail.

Schneider and the Texas Campaign have aggressively lobbied Dell and other tech companies to improve their environmental policies.

Most consumer electronics makers offer free recycling in Europe and some parts of the U.S., where free recovery services have been mandated. Dell said it will offer free recovery in all U.S. states by September and throughout the rest of the world by November.

Hewlett-Packard Co. and Apple Computer Inc. also recycle old computer systems. However, both companies charge a fee to recycle their own products unless consumers are purchasing new equipment from them. Lenovo Group Ltd. will recover old PCs for $30.

“This incremental step might be big for the industry, but it’s not all that big for Dell,” Chairman Michael Dell told reporters. “We have the infrastructure in place to make this happen.”

Tod Arbogast, who helps manage Dell’s environmental programs, said the campaign marked a greater commitment by Dell to the environment. And Michael Dell said the program also could help drive more sales to consumers, who are becoming more environmentally aware.

Dell users who want to recycle their products can go online and enter the serial number from their equipment. They can then print out shipping labels and schedule a pickup, which is handled by the companies that Dell uses to ship its products. Dell also employs other companies to recycle or refurbish its computers, but the contracts no longer allow equipment to be shipped out of the U.S.

The program is another step in the turnaround of Dell’s approach to recycling. Four years ago, activists were stuffing Michael Dell’s home mailbox with thousands of letters, each encouraging him to improve the company’s environmental programs. Since then, environmental groups said, Dell has led the computer industry with initiatives on recycling and reducing levels of toxic materials in its products.

“This signals to us a commitment on Dell’s part to say, ‘We’re responsible for our products’ impact on the environment,’ ” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Computer Takeback Campaign. “No one else is doing that on a global basis. “Now it’s a matter of how much they’ll promote it,” she said.

Consumers have been slow to recycle old computers, in large part because it’s more convenient to dump them than recycle them. Convenience can be more crucial than price, said John Frey, manager of H-P’s environmental initiatives. One consumer might want to protect sensitive data by destroying the hard drive, while another might want to save the hard drive so the computer can be donated to charity. Though Dell’s recovery program is free, destroying sensitive data is the consumer’s responsibility.

“We’ve found that offering variety and convenience has driven more recycling than any program that sounds like a great idea,” Frey said.

Last year, H-P recovered 140 million pounds of equipment, including printer cartridges and other tech products. Dell recovered 41 million pounds. And Apple, which only a month ago said it would start taking back its old equipment free with the purchase of new products, recovered 6.2 million pounds.

Dell has said it hopes to have recovered a total of 280 million pounds of equipment by 2009.

H-P, which has had recycling programs in place since 1987, has set a goal of 1 billion pounds by 2007. Earlier this week, H-P broadened its worldwide recovery programs and said it would hold recycling drives in seven U.S. states this year.

Georgetown takes on tech trash: City is first to vote on resolution urging new electronics recycling rules

computerrecycleAustin American-Statesman
Francisco Vara-Orta

Consumers aren’t the only ones frustrated about what to do with obsolete and broken electronic equipment such as televisions or computers. A surging international debate over electronic waste, or e-waste, has cities such as Georgetown plugging into residents’ concern over consumers and businesses tossing old equipment in the trash, possibly leading to contamination from the electronics’ internal toxic chemicals.

Last week, the Georgetown City Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution calling for the Texas Legislature to require vendors and companies who provide electronic products to city and state governments to take the equipment back after it is discarded. Currently, each entity must figure out what to do with its obsolete electronics.

Georgetown became the first city in Texas to vote on an electronic waste resolution, but city officials said it’s more of a political statement that bears no legal consequences. The council acted after receiving about 200 letters and a petition with about 800 signatures in favor of the resolution.

“We’re trying to send the message to other city and state governments that e-waste is a fast-growing problem and the technology industry needs to be encouraged to make more environmentally sound products,” said Patty Eason, a Georgetown council member.

The effort is being led by the Texas Campaign for the Environment, an Austin-based advocacy group that is trying to line up similar resolutions in Plano and Dallas, with eyes on the 2007 Legislature.

Executive Director Robin Schneider said a recent study by her group found that Central Texas cities would spend an estimated $41 million through 2015 on electronic waste if there is no requirement for companies or vendors to handle the recycling.

“E-waste is the fastest-growing municipal waste stream in the United States,” Schneider said.

She praised Georgetown, saying the city “took a step in the right direction of what’s going to be a very long path to comprehensive national e-waste legislation.”

Eason said Georgetown’s resolution is part of a broader goal to get federal laws written to create a uniform policy for manufacturers to handle more electronic waste.

“Citizens and cities are having to deal with the problem, and it’s only going to get worse,” Eason said.

Southwestern University’s Laura Hobgood-Oster, who chairs the school’s environmental studies program, sent the council a letter supporting the resolution.

“It’s like we have some kind of cultural blind spot when it comes to the dangers of electronic waste,” Hobgood-Oster said. “Technology has been so fast-paced in the last century that I don’t think we’ve realized yet what we’re going to do with all that obsolete equipment.”

Approximately 62 percent of U.S. households had computers in 2003, compared with only 37 percent in 1997, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. About 70 million computers became obsolete in 2003, and only 7 million of those were recycled, according to a report by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit, nongovernmental public health advocacy agency.

When it comes time to get rid of old equipment, residents’ options are limited.

Federal rules allow only 220 pounds of hazardous waste each month in landfills, the equivalent of two or three TVs. Some companies, such as Dell Inc., do have programs to recycle outdated equipment. People can also sell obsolete items to for-profit businesses that recycle parts. Another option is to donate equipment to nonprofits or thrift stores.

Georgetown resident Leona Resteiner said she donates her outdated equipment to nonprofit groups, or, if the equipment is broken, waits for the city’s hazardous waste collection day in November.

Most large electronics such as computers and TVs are prohibited from regular trash pickups in Georgetown because of the federal dumping guidelines and the city’s current incapacity for recycling high volumes of e-waste. However, Georgetown’s revamped recycling facility, opening this year, will have a dropoff point for electronics.

“We should have more options; the ones available are too far and few in between,” Resteiner said. “I think that discourages proper disposal of e-waste, but this is an important issue that can affect the health of our children and grandchildren for generations.”