In a cement-floored warehouse in upstate New York, half a dozen women sit hunched over computer workstations. Holding a heat gun in one hand and metal tweezers in the other, they pry silicon chips from circuit boards like dentists extracting little metal teeth. Down the hall, a jumble of bright green motherboards spills out onto a conveyor belt headed toward a shredder that will rip them to cracker-size pieces of plastic. And around the corner, a clean-cut guy in a black work smock takes a big hammer and smashes one hard drive after another before tossing them into a huge bin marked ALUMINUM.
No, this is not a PC factory gone berserk. This is the place where old computers go to die. IBM's Asset Recovery Center in Endicott, N.Y., is one of the largest PC junkyards in the world. Some 40 million lbs. of computers are dismantled here each year.
It hardly makes a dent, however, in the annual bumper crop of dead computers. Every year an electronic trash heap nearly as tall as Mount Everest is tossed into garbage cans, stashed in garages or forgotten in closets. Some 500 million PCs will be rendered obsolete by 2007 in the U.S. alone--abandoned by users who have upgraded to faster and sexier machines--according to a report by the National Safety Council. Computers are ranked as the nation's fastest-growing category of solid waste by the Environmental Protection Agency.
And one of its most dangerous. Old PCs contain lead, cadmium, mercury and other unsavory components. Yet only 10% of the machines are recycled. Many of them find their way into landfills and incinerators, where they can threaten the environment. That's why the European Union has drafted rules that will hold manufacturers responsible for recycling their wares by 2008.
To fend off similar legislation here, U.S. manufacturers are scrambling to devise recycling programs of their own--and hoping to make a buck while they're at it. Last November, IBM launched the first nationwide program; it charges computer users a $30 shipping-and-handling fee to take even an ancient PC off their hands. Hewlett-Packard plans to launch its consumer-PC take-back program in March. Regional efforts--such as Sony's "recycling days" begun in Minnesota last fall--have sprung up from Oregon to New York.
They face some consumer resistance. It's hard to pay a stranger to cart away a computer you bought for $2,000. Yet by the time you're ready to part with that machine, it's often so obsolete that no school or charity will take it. If you put it on the curb with the trash, however, it will end up in a landfill, where toxins could leach into the soil.
A recycled PC, on the other hand, is literally a gold mine. Pentium and other processors have golden tips. A computer's main circuit board, fashioned from copper and fiber glass, is studded with silver and gold connectors. A steel frame keeps the unit sturdy, and aluminum or copper heat sinks prevent the cpu from overheating. The outer plastic case can be recycled to make everything from pothole filler to pencil holders. Even the cords dangling from the back have rich copper wiring that can be reincarnated as pipes, pans or furniture.