Computer recycling

Computer recycling
Computer monitors are typically packed into low stacks on wooden pallets for recycling and then shrink-wrapped.[1]

Computer recycling or electronic recycling is the recycling or reuse of computers or other electronics. It includes both finding another use for materials (such as donation to charity), and having systems dismantled in a manner that allows for the safe extraction of the constituent materials for reuse in other products.


Reasons for recycling

Obsolete computers or other electronics are a valuable source for secondary raw materials, if treated properly; if not treated properly, they are a source of toxins and carcinogens. Rapid technology change, low initial cost, and even planned obsolescence have resulted in a fast-growing surplus of computer or other electronic components around the globe. Technical solutions are available, but in most cases a legal framework, a collection system, logistics, and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an estimated 30 to 40 million surplus PCs, which it classifies under the term "hazardous household waste",[2] will be ready for end-of-life management in each of the next few years. The U.S. National Safety Council estimates that 75% of all personal computers ever sold are now surplus electronics.[3]

In 2007, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that more than 63 million computers in the U.S. were traded in for replacements—or they simply were discarded. Today 15 percent of electronic devices and equipment are recycled in the United States. Most electronic waste is sent to landfills or becomes incinerated, having a negative impact on the environment by releasing materials such as lead, mercury, or cadmium into the soil, groundwater, and atmosphere.

Many materials used in the construction of computer hardware can be recovered in the recycling process for use in future production. Reuse of tin, silicon, iron, aluminum, and a variety of plastics — all present in bulk in computers or other electronics — can reduce the costs of constructing new systems. In addition, components frequently contain copper, gold, and other materials valuable enough to reclaim in their own right.

Dismantled Sony Vaio PCG-982L and Compaq JBL Professional laptops.

Computer components contain valuable elements and substances suitable for reclamation, including lead, copper, and gold. They also contain many toxic substances, such as dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cadmium, chromium, radioactive isotopes, and mercury. A typical computer monitor may contain more than 6% lead by weight, much of which is in the lead glass of the cathode ray tube (CRT). A typical 15-inch computer monitor may contain 1.5 pounds of lead,[2] but other monitors have been estimated as having up to 8 pounds of lead.[1] Circuit boards contain considerable quantities of lead-tin solders and are even more likely to leach into groundwater or to create air pollution via incineration. Additionally, the processing required to reclaim the precious substances (including incineration and acid treatments) may release, generate, and synthesize further toxic byproducts.

A major computer or electronic recycling concern is export of waste to countries with lower environmental standards. Companies may find it cost-effective in the short term to sell outdated computers to less developed countries with lax regulations. It is commonly believed that a majority of surplus laptops are routed to developing nations as "dumping grounds for e-waste".[4] The high value of working and reusable laptops, computers, and components (e.g., RAM) can help pay the cost of transportation for a large number of worthless "commodities". Broken monitors, obsolete circuit boards, and short-circuited transistors are difficult to spot in a containerload of used electronics.


An abandoned Texan monitor.


In Switzerland, the first electronic waste recycling system was implemented in 1991, beginning with collection of old refrigerators; over the years, all other electric and electronic devices were gradually added to the system. The established producer responsibility organization is SWICO, mainly handling information, communication, and organization technology.[5]

The European Union implemented a similar system in February 2003, under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive, 2002/96/EC).[6]

United States


The United States Congress considers a number of electronic waste bills, including the National Computer Recycling Act introduced by Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA). Meanwhile, the main federal law governing solid waste is the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. It covers only CRTs, though state regulations may differ.[7] There are also separate laws concerning battery disposal. On March 25, 2009, the House Science and Technology Committee approved funding for research on reducing electronic waste and mitigating environmental impact, regarded by sponsor Ralph Hall (R-TX) as the first federal bill to address electronic waste directly.[8]


Many states have introduced legislation concerning recycling and reuse of computers or computer parts or other electronics.[9] Most American computer recycling legislation addresses it from within the larger electronic waste issue.

In 2001, Arkansas enacted the Arkansas Computer and Electronic Solid Waste Management Act, which requires that state agencies manage and sell surplus computer equipment, establishes a computer and electronics recycling fund, and authorizes the Department of Environmental Quality to regulate and/or ban the disposal of computer and electronic equipment in Arkansas landfills.[10]

The recently[when?] passed Electronic Device Recycling Research and Development Act distributes grants to universities, government labs, and private industry for research in developing projects in line with e-waste recycling and refurbishment.


South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan require that sellers and manufacturers of electronics be responsible for recycling 75% of them.[citation needed]

Recycling methods

Computers being collected for recycling at a pickup event in Olympia, Washington, United States.

Consumer recycling

Consumer recycling options include (see below) sale, donating computers directly to organizations in need, sending devices directly back to their original manufacturers, or getting components to a convenient recycler or refurbisher.

Corporate recycling

Businesses seeking a cost-effective way to recycle large amounts of computer equipment responsibly face a more complicated process.

Businesses also have the options of sale or contacting the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and arranging recycling options.

Some companies will pick up unwanted equipment from businesses, wipe the data clean from the systems, and provide an estimate of the product’s remaining value. For unwanted items that still have value, these firms will buy the excess IT hardware and sell refurbished products to those seeking more affordable options than buying new. Companies that specialize in data protection and green disposal processes dispose of both data and used equipment while at the same time employing strict procedures to help improve the environment. Professional IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) firms specialize in corporate computer disposal and recycling services in compliance with local laws and regulations and also offer secure data elimination services that comply with data erasure standards.

Corporations face risks both for incompletely destroyed data and for improperly disposed computers. In America companies are liable for compliance with regulations even if the recycling process is outsourced under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Companies can mitigate these risks by requiring waivers of liability, audit trails, certificates of data destruction, signed confidentiality agreements, and random audits of information security. The National Association of Information Destruction is an international trade association for data destruction providers.[11]


Online auctions are an alternative for consumers willing to resell for cash less fees, in a complicated, self-managed, competitive environment[12] where paid listings might not sell.[13] Online classified ads can be similarly risky due to forgery scams and uncertainty.[14]


A number of organizations attempt to reuse computers. These organizations usually refurbish usable computers for sale at discounted prices to schools, the needy, other nonprofit organizations, or the general public.

In the United States, consumer recycling includes a variety of donation options, such as charitable nonprofit organizations (NPOs) (501(c)(3) organizations - for example, Free Geek) which may offer tax benefits in return.[15] NPOs (such as Nonprofit Technology Resources or Camara) will often accept and refurbish still-usable computers in return for tax benefits. The Computer Takeback Campaign and the TechSoup Donate Hardware List are resources for locating such refurbishers.[16] Donated systems can also be directed to developing nations (see Computer technology for developing areas). However, in cases where the computer equipment comes from a wide variety of manufacturers, it may be more efficient to hire a third-party contractor (such as [17]) to handle the recycling arrangements.

In Canada, Industry Canada runs the Computers for Schools program in association with TelecomPioneers.[18]


When researching computer companies before a computer purchase, consumers can find out if they offer recycling services. Most major computer manufacturers offer some form of recycling. At the user's request they may mail in their old computers, or arrange for pickup from the manufacturer.

Hewlett-Packard also offers free recycling, but only one of its "national" recycling programs is available nationally, rather than in one or two specific states.[19] Hewlett-Packard also offers to pick up any computer product of any brand for a fee, and to offer a coupon against the purchase of future computers or components; it was the largest computer recycler in America in 2003, and it has recycled over 750 million pounds of electronic waste globally[2] since 1995.[20] It encourages the shared approach of collection points for consumers and recyclers to meet.[21]


Manufacturers often offer a free replacement service when purchasing a new PC. Dell Computers and Apple Inc. will take back old products when one buys a new one. Both refurbish and resell their own computers with a one-year warranty.[14]

Many companies purchase and recycle all brands of working and broken laptops and notebook computers, whether from individuals or corporations. Building a market for recycling of desktop computers has proven more difficult than exchange programs for laptops, smartphones, and other smaller electronics.[22] A basic business model is to provide a seller an instant online quote based on laptop characteristics, then to send a shipping label and prepaid box to the seller, to erase, reformat, and process the laptop, and to pay rapidly by check.[4] A majority of these companies are also generalized electronic waste recyclers as well; organizations that recycle computers exclusively include Cash For Laptops, a laptop refurbisher in Nevada that claims to be the first to buy laptops online, in 2001.[22]

Bulk laptops at a recycling affiliate, broken down into Dell, Gateway Computers, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, and other.


For systems which are obsolete or no longer useful to its user, recycling is often the only choice available. This is usually done by breaking down the equipment into its component parts, such as plastics and metals. These parts can then be recycled through various methods depending on the material. Recyclers typically charge a fee, but in return many (see e-Stewards) have a zero-landfill policy and the sorted or shredded pieces are melted down to recover their component materials for re-use.

Early pioneering efforts to e-waste

The first major publication to report the recycling of computers and electronic waste was published on the front page of the New York Times on April 14, 1993 by columnist Steve Lohr. See *[1]

Data security

Data security is an important part of computer recycling. Federal regulations mandate that there are no information security leaks in the lifecycle of secure data; this includes its destruction and recycling. There are a number of federal laws and regulations, including HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley, FACTA, GLB, which govern the data lifecycle and require that establishments with high and low-profile data keep their data secure.Recycling computers can be dangerous when handling sensitive data, specifically to businesses storing tax records or employee information. While most people will try to wipe their hard drives clean before disposing of their old computers, only 5 percent rely on an industry specialist or a third party to completely clean the system before it's disposed of according to an IBM survey. Industry standards recommend a 3X overwriting process for complete protection against retrieving confidential information. This means a hard drive must be wiped three times in order to ensure the data cannot be retrieved and possibly used by others.

Reasons to destroy and recycle securely

There are ways to ensure that not only hardware is destroyed but also the private data on the hard drive. Having customer data stolen, lost, or misplaced contributes to the ever growing number of people who are affected by identity theft, which can cause corporations to lose more than just money. The image of a company that holds secure data, such as banks, law firms, pharmaceuticals, and credit corporations is also at risk. If a company’s public image is hurt that could cause consumers to not use their services and could cost millions in business losses and positive public relation campaigns. The cost of data breaches "var[ies] widely ranging $90 to $50,000 (under HIPAA's new HITECH amendment, that came about through the American Recovery and Revitalization act of 2009) per customer record, depending on whether the breach is “low-profile” or “high-profile” and the company is in a non-regulated or highly regulated area, such as banking or medical institutions.” [23] There is also a major backlash from the consumer if there is a data breach in a company that is supposed to be trusted to protect their private information. If an organization has any consumer info on file, they must by law (Red Flags Clarification act of 2010) have written information protection policies and procedures in place, that serve to combat, mitigate, and detect vulnerable areas that could result in identity theft. The United States Department of Defense has published a standard to which recyclers and individuals may meet in order to satisfy HIPAA requirements.

Secure recycling

There are regulations that monitor the data security on end-of-life hardware. National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) “is the international trade association for companies providing information destruction services. Suppliers of products, equipment and services to destruction companies are also eligible for membership. NAID's mission is to promote the information destruction industry and the standards and ethics of its member companies.” [24] There are companies that follow the guidelines from NAID and also meet all Federal EPA and local DEP regulations.

The typical process for computer recycling aims to securely destroy hard drives while still recycling the byproduct. A typical process for effective computer recycling accomplishes the following:

  1. Receive hardware for destruction in locked and securely transported vehicles
  2. Shred hard drives
  3. Separate all aluminum from the waste metals with an electromagnet
  4. Collect and securely deliver the shredded remains to an aluminum recycling plant
  5. Mold the remaining hard drive parts into aluminum ingots

See also


An iMac G4 that has been repurposed into a lamp (photographed next to a Mac Classic and a flip phone).




  1. ^ a b Royte, Elizabeth (2005-08-01). "E-gad! Americans discard more than 100 million computers, cellphones and other electronic devices each year. As "e-waste" piles up, so does concern about this growing threat to the environment.". Smithsonian Magazine (Smithsonian Institution). Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  2. ^ a b c Morgan, Russell (2006-08-21). "Tips and Tricks for Recycling Old Computers". SmartBiz. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  3. ^ Harris, Mark (2008-08-17). "E-mail from America: Buy-back gadgets". Sunday Times (Seattle, Washington). Retrieved 2009-03-10. 
  4. ^ a b Prashant, Nitya (2008-08-20). "Cash For Laptops Offers 'Green' Solution for Broken or Outdated Computers". Green Technology (Norwalk, Connecticut: Technology Marketing Corporation). Retrieved 2009-03-17.  In "Opinion". National Center For Electronics Recycling News Summary (National Center For Electronics Recycling). 2008-08-28. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  5. ^ "Umwelt Schweiz". Retrieved 2006-11-24. 
  6. ^ "Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment". 
  7. ^ "Final Rules on Cathode Ray Tubes and Discarded Mercury-Containing Equipment". U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 
  8. ^ "House Panel Approves Bill to Aid Disposal of Unwanted Electronics". Congressional Quarterly. 2009-03-25. Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  9. ^ "Electronic Waste". 
  10. ^ "Arkansas Computer and Electronic Solid Waste Management Act". 
  11. ^ Kuhlenbeck, Phil (2006-06-09). "Law holds businesses responsible for disposal of computers". Austin Business Journal. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  12. ^ Perepelkin, Plato (2008-09-18). "Brisk sales of Apple's new 3G model have consumers scrambling to profit from their 'old' phones at" (PDF). Computer Apple Digest: pp. 16–18. Retrieved 2009-03-05. 
  13. ^ Albanesius, Chloe (2008-07-28). "Gazelle Will Give You Cash for Your Gadgets". News and Analysis (PC Magazine).,1895,2326527,00.asp. Retrieved 2009-03-05. 
  14. ^ a b Bray, Hiawatha (2008-10-30). "Scrounge up cash with used gadgets". Boston Globe. Globe Newspaper Company. Retrieved 2009-03-05. 
  15. ^ Where to donate and recycle old computer equipment in the United States
  16. ^ "Kroll Ontrack Offers Advice for Properly Recycling Your Electronic Devices: With the Rise in Popularity of Electronic Device Recycling, Leading Data Recovery Provider Offers Tips for Protecting Valuable Business and Personal Data While Responsibly Disposing of Old Electronics". Business Wire. 2007-08-21. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  17. ^ Redemtech
  18. ^ Industry Canada: Computers for Schools
  19. ^ "HP Environment: Product Return & Recycling". 
  20. ^ Haffenreffer, David (2003-02-13). "Recycling, the Hewlett-Packard Way". Financial Times (CNN). Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  21. ^ Dean, Katie (2003-06-25). "Bill Aims to Cut Computer Clutter". Wired Magazine. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  22. ^ a b NNBW Staff (2009-03-30). "Cash-strapped consumers turn to laptops recycler". Northern Nevada Business Weekly 7 (34). Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  23. ^ "ID Theft Center". 2009-01-01. Retrieved 2009-08-14. 
  24. ^ "NAID". 2009-01-01. Retrieved 2009-08-14. 

External links

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Organization links

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