E-cycling gets into gear

READ's Oliver Voss says a centralized program significantly lowers the cost of recycling PCs.

Rick Steele

Voluntary programs help agencies handle a mountain
of electronics waste

If the federal government did curbside recycling of computers, its little blue bins would be overflowing.

But often it's agency trash cans that are overflowing, as CIOs and asset managers struggle with how to dispose of more than 10,000 PCs each week'not to mention other electronic devices such as copiers, fax machines and printers.

To handle this 'e-waste,' the government recently instituted voluntary programs to encourage best practices in electronics recycling and disposal. And a recently proposed Senate bill would make computer recycling mandatory for agencies.

Experts said the programs'whether voluntary or required'should solve some of the environmental, security and privacy risks that come with improper disposal of federal computers.

Most computers contain toxic materials, such as chromium, lead and mercury, so their disposal raises serious issues of safety, environmental stewardship and legal liability.

PCs have ended up in closets or landfills or, worst of all, shipped and buried overseas, creating not just an environmental hazard, but also a foreign-relations problem.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration are leading the effort to improve the reprocessing of PCs with programs that give agencies how-to advice and a list of pre-approved contractors.

The Federal Electronics Challenge, www.federalelectronicschallenge.net, for instance, gives agencies information on how to make 'greener' decisions in how they buy, use and dispose of electronic assets.

In November, 11 agencies signed an agreement to send representatives to a Challenge working group to develop common strategies. The Office of the Federal Environmental Executive (FEE), which directs the White House Task Force on Waste Prevention and Recycling, oversees the Electronics Challenge.

'All signatories are moving forward on either greener purchasing, use or end-of-life management of their electronic assets,' said Juan Lopez, a senior program analyst at FEE. 'We are already seeing agency policy and implementation plans from new signatories, but that does not mean that [they] have not been recycling all along.'

Reducing waste

Both FEE and the Electronics Challenge work to further federal agency reduction, recycling and responsible disposal of all kinds of waste, not just electronics.

FEE gave the initiatives an additional boost last December when it launched the Recycling Electronics and Asset Disposition (READ) program.

GSA's Office of Personal Property Management hatched the program two years ago as an environmentally correct alternative to the disposal programs.

'There wasn't much of a recycling program with GSA,' said Oliver Voss, the READ service center manager. 'A lot of agencies were concerned with liability issues because most of the time, GSA just auctions this stuff off, and you don't know where it ended up. There's no audit trail.'

Lawmakers also are paying attention. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) have co-sponsored the Electronic Waste Recycling and Promotion and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, S 510, which would require agencies to recycle every monitor and PC.

It also would require the EPA administrator to study and make recommendations to Congress on the feasibility of establishing, within a year, a nationwide recycling program that would pre-empt any state plan.

The bill, introduced March 3, is stalled in the Senate Finance Committee.

'As technology improves and folks get newer and faster computers, they need a safe and easy way to get rid of their old machines,' said Wyden. 'This legislation gives consumers, recyclers, retailers and manufacturers alike incentives to recycle old computers responsibly.'

The bill also would establish an $8-per-unit tax credit for companies that recycle at least 5,000 monitors and PCs annually, and a $15-per-unit tax credit for consumers who recycle computers or televisions with qualified recyclers.

While the bill waits for congressional action, the READ service, www.epa.gov/oam/read, gives agencies a potential leg up in complying with the law. The group administers governmentwide acquisition contracts with seven recycling vendors scattered across the country.

Lower cost

By centrally governing the program, Voss said, the cost to recycle computers drops from as high as $20 per PC to $8 or $10.

READ also offers a share-in-saving program that can cut the cost of recycling PCs by half again. The agency would share the revenue made from recycling computers with the vendor, which sells the basic materials or refurbished parts.

PCs contain about $3 worth of recyclable precious metals such as gold or copper, which most commonly are found on the circuit board and wiring.

Voss said almost all parts of a computer are recyclable, but the circuit board is the most difficult part to reuse.

'The plastic used in the board often is not recoverable due to the techniques used to pull out the lead and other materials,' he said.

Most circuit boards are smelted so the metals can be recovered, and the aluminum-bearing assemblies, such as the power supply and hard drive, typically are sent to a specialized shredder to recover the metals, Voss said.

READ pre-approved contractors by evaluating how they complied with the organization's requirements in areas such as sound business management, materials handling and record keeping, plus a commitment to minimizing overseas shipments.

'We did the due diligence on their behalf,' Voss said, to determine 'that these are dependable businesses that aren't just going to ship computers overseas.'

The READ guidelines give broad leeway for agencies to choose their own security and recycling standards; one agency might require physical destruction of hard drives and allow some overseas shipments, while another is happy with 'wiping' hard drives of data, but not shipping them overseas.

He said GSA still will auction off some equipment but that, after 21 days, the originating agency will inform the READ office of its remaining inventory, and READ will bid out the job to the seven contractors.

EPA headquarters in Washington and offices in Regions 2 and 4 will be among the first to employ the READ service, according to Voss, who added that the program should be fully implemented after READ audits the last facility in early June.

Agencies still can contract with the dozens of other recycling vendors who provide similar services, such as the Federal Prison Industries Inc., known by its trade name UNICOR.

UNICOR is a distant second in popularity behind GSA's standard property-management programs, Voss said.

The EPA also expects the READ program to catch on among agencies. Last year, it awarded seven small-business vendors contracts running through Dec. 16 to provide recycling and disposal services to federal agencies that participate in READ.

In addition, the National Park Service recently signed an agreement with Dell Inc. to recycle or redeploy NPS' computer systems, as part of a blanket purchasing deal to lease or buy up to 10,000 desktop PCs, notebooks and servers over the next three years. Dell will provide an asset recovery service as part of the contract.

Vendors are likely to play a growing role in helping agencies recycle their old electronics.

But officials can expect a growing burden to ensure vendors take the necessary precautions to permanently erase data and use techniques that are environmentally sound.

Among other tips EPA and other agencies offer:
  • When possible, upgrade PCs rather than replace them, to keep them out of the waste stream longer;

  • Reconsider your donation program. You can't give away your liability for proper disposal.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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