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City dumping the way it retires old computers

November 2, 2005

africaewasteSan Antonio Express-News
Anton Caputo

The city of San Antonio doesn’t want any more of its old computers to end up in a Nigerian garbage dump. Or any dump, for that matter.

City officials, on the heels of a recent report that revealed one of their computers was among thousands getting dumped as garbage in Nigeria, plan to change the way they dispose of their old PCs to ensure that the machines are properly reused or recycled.

Hugh Miller, acting director of the city’s Information Technology Services, said the pending change is not a direct result of the report or its coverage in the San Antonio Express-News. But he did say the recent revelations “solidified the need to have it done.”

At issue is the fate of the roughly 8,000 computers the city cycles through every four years. Currently, the computers are auctioned 100 or so at a time to the highest bidder, Miller said.

This was the case with computer No. 821465, which was auctioned last November, only to end up as garbage in the Nigerian port city of Lagos.

“Once they are sold, it’s hard for us to keep full track of what that buyer does with them,” Miller said. “They probably sold another lot to Africa, and whoever was in that group went though and said, ‘We can probably use this, and we can use this. What do we do with the rest?'”

The rest is dumped in heaps around the African countryside and then burned or left to possibly seep dangerous chemicals such as lead and mercury, according to a report released earlier this month by the Basel Action Network.

This is a growing problem that is not likely to go away. Nearly 250 million computers in the U.S. will become obsolete in the next five years, according to the National Safety Council.

The average computer monitor contains 4 pounds of lead.

Most of the secondhand equipment is shipped to Africa to be reused, BAN found. But as much as 75 percent of the equipment is considered junk by those businesses in Nigeria that import it and ends up as discarded hulks.

Miller, who has been with the city five months, wants to eliminate the municipality’s contribution to the problem.

He wants to work out a deal with the computer manufacturer to properly dispose of the machines after their working life with the city is over. He’s also considering first offering them for sale to city employees.

The plan will be instituted through a request for proposals put out to computer manufacturers or through a state contract, but Miller said the details likely wouldn’t be worked out until after the first of the year.

Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment applauds the move. She said Dell, which supplies most of the city’s computers, has several programs that could work. A Dell representative did not return calls Tuesday.

“What we found oftentimes is the people who do the purchasing don’t necessarily talk to the people who do the end-of-life handling, and we need to close that loop,” Schneider said. “San Antonio will be in good company.”


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