Sensible surplus

The recycling challenge will provide data for agencies about the costs and benefits of PC disposal, the White House's Charles Johnson says.

Henrik G. de Gyor

Until now, the EPA's Christopher Kent says, no one in government has looked comprehensively at disposal methods for old PCs.

Henrik G. de Gyor

White House effort challenges agencies to recycle PCs

The White House Office of the Federal Environmental Executive estimates that more than half of all federal workers have desktop PCs and every week the government disposes of about 10,000 old computers.

Now through the Federal Electronics Challenge, the tiny office that promotes conservation and recycling wants to reduce the chance that those old PCs will poison someone's drinking water.

OFEE is seeking 15 agencies to commit to getting rid of their outmoded desktop components in an environmentally benign manner. Eventually, all agencies can sign up for help in modifying their procurement and disposal practices and win national awards for their efforts.

The White House office began as a federal recycling coordination program during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. A few years later, President Bill Clinton renamed it and assigned it more responsibilities.

OFEE reports to both the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

'We want to make sure that things are reused or recycled as much as possible, so that it's easier for procurement officials to do their jobs,' federal environment executive John L. Howard Jr. said.

Desktop computers have a lifecycle of three to four years, said Christopher Kent, an environmental protection specialist with EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.

Agencies often keep equipment in use or storage much longer than that, Kent said, and then they dispose of it through a General Services Administration program. Executive Order 12999, signed by Clinton in 1996, requires agencies to give away excess or surplus computers to schools and nonprofit agencies through the Federal Supply Service.

Some agencies are still getting rid of PCs with 486 or early Pentium processors, but schools increasingly don't want such old equipment, said Charles Johnson, OFEE's electronic stewardship program manager.

Not so clean

Moreover, many agencies now lease computers through seat management contracts, which means that the contractors have the incentive to recycle.

'From an environmental perspective, that's a very good thing,' Howard said.

People tend to think of computers as clean technology, Kent said. But electronic equipment contains such hazardous substances as lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and beryllium. According to an EPA fact sheet, the typical CRT monitor has 6 pounds of lead shielding.

Some states are even categorizing CRTs as hazardous waste. 'There is a growing awareness that it's not right just to throw it away,' Johnson said.

The stronger occupational safety regulations are, the more money it costs to dispose of old electronic equipment. Recyclers tend to send electronic waste to third-world countries for cheap disposal under conditions dangerous to workers there, Howard said.

Before the electronics challenge got started, the Federal Network for Sustainability'a group of agencies, military bases and offices in the Northwest'took up the cause of electronics waste, Kent said. But no one had looked at the nationwide picture of federal PC disposal.

Seeks a cross-section

Through the challenge, OFEE will gather statistics about the financial costs and benefits of environmentally friendly PC disposal.

It seeks participants in a cross-section from headquarters level down to activity level, Johnson said.

Participants must fill out a baseline survey about their current acquisition and end-of-life procedures for PCs. They can aim for gold, silver or bronze designations, depending on how many recycling goals they meet.

The bronze-level tasks involve completing the surveys and at least two other activities, such as ensuring that at least half of newly purchased electrical equipment meets Energy Star guidelines.
Silver and gold levels have more requirements. To win a gold award, an agency must:
  • Purchase third-party, ecolabeled products or follow criteria of a third-party eco-labeling program

  • Require vendors to train agency representatives about the environmental impacts of product components

  • Reuse 75 percent of all peripherals when installing a new CPU.

The challenge will help OFEE draw up a list of best practices, Johnson said. For example, agencies will know what questions to ask of PC recyclers, such as data security procedures and the ultimate destination of the scrapped PCs and parts.

Data security is ultimately the responsibility of the disposer, Howard said, but agencies should scrub disk drives before getting rid of PCs.

If a recycler of government computers dumps them under the table, the environmental responsibility could later come back to the agency that originally owned the PCs.

Saving data to network drives instead of PC drives and upgrading software over agency LANs lessens the security burden on administrators, Johnson said.

OFEE officials also have been talking with computer makers about their waste streams, Howard said. For OFEE and EPA, the long-term goal is to reduce the amount of toxic materials going into new computers and other electronic equipment.

LCD monitors don't have the heavy lead shielding of their CRT cousins, but they do contain mercury, Kent said. They take less energy to operate than CRTs but more energy to manufacture.

Cell phones pose an even bigger waste load than PCs and monitors because they have a shorter lifecycle and are more likely to be thrown into the trash, Johnson said.

OFEE wants to make it as easy as possible for agencies to weigh environmental trade-offs in their procurement and equipment end-of-life decisions, Howard said.

In January EPA also launched a consumer-oriented pilot project called Plug-In to eCycling, Kent said. The project's site lists resources for disposing of old computers, televisions and cell phones. To access it, go to and enter 162 in the box.

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