Ponder these facts: A Carnegie Mellon University study estimates that 55 million computers will wallow in U.S. landfills by the year 2005. For every four computers purchased, three others are stuffed away in storage. The ratio of computers to people in the U.S. has grown to 40 per 100 people, with an anticipated growth rate of 3.5 per 100 per year, according to the Computer Industry Almanac.
Fortunately, federal and state agencies, as well as educational and not-for-profit organizations, are recognizing the need to provide channels for reusing and recycling computers as the number of outdated and idle units grows. You do have some options today, though, for sending your unused machines on to their next life.
Hand It Down — The first place to check is your local school district, as cutbacks in school funding have hampered purchases of new computers. But, don’t drop off an old 8088 or Apple IIe without checking the school’s needs, or you may be donating a large paperweight. Also, find out if your school maintains a program where students refurbish donated electronics equipment to be used throughout the district. These programs may be able to cannibalize non-working computers for parts, or repair them for further use.
Another area for donations is local, not-for-profit organizations, which usually work with tight budgets and older equipment. Your 386, 486, or Macintosh IIsi could be a step up – especially if it’s upgradable. Lists of these organizations should be available through your local newspaper or United Way. In addition, many Goodwill Industries locations are accepting and rehabilitating computers and peripherals for resale.
A recent U.S. law may spur the donation of newer machines, too. A bill introduced by Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-CA), and enacted in August 1997, allows U.S. corporations to deduct the full purchase price of any computer they donate to a school within two years of the initial purchase.
Web Ideas — Using the Internet can expand the horizon of your donation possibilities. An excellent site to start with is Parents, Educators, and Publishers, where state, national, and international sources to facilitate donations are listed.
A visit to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) site yields an Electronics Reuse and Recycling Directory, with extensive contact information on various programs and companies in the U.S. (but no Web links) that deal with reuse and recycling of electronic items.
Compute Locally — You can contribute to the reuse side without actually donating equipment.
Volunteer: Help out an existing donation program if you have the skills or are willing to learn.
Buy used: Instead of that 100 MB, 300 MHz blockbuster that the manufacturers are pushing, purchase a refurbished or still-usable machine, if all you need is word processing, minor number-crunching, or a reasonable way to connect to the Internet.
Start a Program: If no program exists in your area to deal with unwanted equipment, gather up like-minded people and start one. Schools, not-for-profits, and shelter workshops could all be potential partners for this worthwhile effort.
Network Device: Some older computers may not be the best thing for your daily work, but NetBITS staff members and many others have taken their old machines and stuck them on networks for dedicated functions. An old Mac SE/30 or 386 PC with a network card and a modem can act as a dial-in system, a print spooler, or even a mail server.
Scavenging — If your computer equipment and related items are just not reusable, there are some limited opportunities to recycle items or components. Although several national companies accept bulk quantities from business sources, they generally do not want small quantities from individuals. Look in your Yellow Pages under headings "recycling services," "computers – used" or "scrap metal" to determine if any local sources exist for recycling your expired computer and peripherals.
One national effort to watch for recycling is the EPA Common Sense Initiative Computer Recycling demonstration program in California. In conjunction with state agencies, environmental organizations, and local computer retailers, the EPA wants to make it convenient to drop off unusable computers and computer components like motherboards, monitors, and printers. If this project is a success, it could be the future of computer reclamation.
Devolution — Another area with long-term potential depends on the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Many attempt to produce computers easy to "demanufacture" by marking plastic parts for recycling, and designing units to be easily taken apart. Since there is a trend to hold companies responsible for the eventual disposal of their machines, they have a vested interest in promoting responsible recycling of non-usable computers.
The bottom line, as in all reuse and recycling, is the effort individuals and companies are willing to expend to do more than throw away or store obsolete computers. Your slow, low-memory machine can be someone else’s speed demon, and it can help put computer ownership within the reach of a wider range of people and organizations who cannot now afford it.
[Charles Fleishman is an Oregonian who formerly worked for BRING Recycling in Eugene. He now works as an intelligent searching agent on the Internet, doing research for others using search engines.]