From Here to Eternity: Recycling Hi-Tech Junk

One company's experience sets a standard for recycling computers and other technological equipment in an efficient, cost-effective and environmentally sound way.

While computer industry pundits are crowing, waste management officials are groaning. Lying in the wake of the more than 100 million new computers sold yearly is another phenomenon: computer graveyards.

Recognizing that waste management officials would soon see a plague of high-tech junk as old computers became obsolete, Robert Knowles Jr. saw a need for a recycling alternative and created Denver-based Technology Recycling.

Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., estimates that only about 5 percent of all computers are being recycled, and the term recycling is used rather loosely at that. Recycling, to many firms, means extracting the minute amounts of precious metals and landfilling the rest.

As this glut of high-tech junk grows larger every year, Knowles knew the waste industry needed to determine how to dispose of the materials, as well as how to divert the equipment's inherent hazardous waste.

True Technology Recycling

In 1998, Knowles was running a company specializing in central processing unit (CPU) upgrades for large, national corporate customers with offices in Colorado, such Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., Raytheon Co., Lexington, Mass., and AT&T Corp., New York. These clients often asked him what to do with old systems that no longer could be upgraded. Somehow, it just didn't seem right to throw those systems away, but there was no alternative.

Repeatedly pressed for a solution, Knowles researched which hazardous materials were contained in computers, solid waste studies and the EPA's position on how to handle obsolete technology. It became obvious to him that high-tech junk posed potentially large disposal problems.

So that year, Knowles launched Technology Recycling and began the arduous task of educating the business community about obsolete computers and the hidden costs of warehousing these items from here to eternity.

Building the Base Unit

The company business model is simple: collect old equipment from companies, and charge them a recycling fee of $35 per component, or $35 per monitor, CPU or printer. This fee accommodates the labor, shipping and processing costs to recycle and dispose of the materials, plus a small profit.

As companies with a minimum of 10 obsolete computer components arrange for pickups through Technology Recycling's website or toll-free phone number, staffers prepare an invoice for the number of components being recycled and arrange for payment.

Originally, Technology Recycling picked up the old systems and delivered them to disabled work centers for dismantling, ultimately shipping the parts and materials to locations around the United States for processing.

Initially, businesses weren't used to recycling their computer equipment, so volume levels weren't steady, Knowles says. The biggest obstacles, in fact, were landfills that accepted the computer materials, companies that stored the old materials and created a potential environmental hazard, or companies that donated the equipment to local charities that could not use the equipment.

For example, many companies believe that they can donate their old systems to schools and nonprofit groups. Unfortunately, schools and nonprofits require systems that are Internet-ready, and older systems often cannot accommodate Internet requirements without expensive upgrades, Knowles says.

As a result, Knowles started a public relations campaign to publicize his service. Thanks to support from the Colorado media, Technology Recycling recycled about five tons of obsolete computers in its first year.

Building a Nationwide Infrastructure

By 1999, Technology Recycling had experienced solid success in Colorado and began building an infrastructure to allow expansion of its services in major cities in the continental United States. Knowles wanted to continue providing high-paying technology jobs for disabled workers, who would disassemble the systems, sort parts and materials, and then ship the goods out for reprocessing.

However, it became apparent that the disabled workshops could not handle the volume of work that started to pour in. In addition, workshop managers said that their disabled clients were better at repetitious work, and the increasing loads of computer systems coming in were vastly different from each other. Ultimately, Technology Recycling shifted to automated systems to process the obsolete computers.

As the company branched out nationwide, it began to pick up national accounts with large numbers of computer systems. Media coverage helped again in 2000, as new legislation and pending EPA decisions heightened the awareness of high-tech junk as a looming environmental problem.

Currently, the EPA is working on strengthening regulations for dumping computer equipment. A number of states, with Massachusetts in the lead, have adopted legislation that bans landfilling old computer systems because of the potential affects of its hazardous substances.

Gradually, more businesses began to appreciate the value of being environmentally responsible, in terms of community relations and various perks and tax credits offered by many states. As a result, Technology Recycling's business grew exponentially business volume increased tenfold in the year 2000, Knowles says.

On Nov. 15, 2000, America Recycles Day, Technology Recycling announced a series of milestones:

  • In its 30 months of business, the company had collected and diverted approximately 100 tons of obsolete computer systems, or roughly 10 to 15 tons of lead, from landfills.

  • The company had acquired a roster of key national accounts, such as Budweiser, Norwest Banks, Guaranty Bank and Trust, Phillips Electronics, the National Park Service and Multum Infoservices.

  • Strict adherence to EPA disposal standards has earned the company preferred status in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington. These states now refer companies seeking computer disposal services to Technology Recycling.

Keeping Good Company

Knowles attributes much of his company's success to a growing awareness that obsolete computers and other types of high-tech junk facsimile machines, copiers, mainframe computers, etc. contain significant amounts of hazardous materials. Specifically, old computer components contain a long list of toxic substances, including lead, cadmium, mercury, silver, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorofluorocarbons/freons (CFCs), phosphors, tungsten, lithium, nickel cadmium (NiCAD), copper, iron, silver-oxide, mercury-oxide and zinc-carbon.

Of this list, lead, cadmium, mercury and silver are dangerous enough to each have their own EPA-designated hazardous materials number. (See the Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] 40, Sections 255-270.)

Additionally, many companies recognize that it's more cost-effective to dispose of old systems and buy new ones, rather than refurbish them. Knowles notes he receives several calls per week from various nonprofits, such as local chapters of Goodwill Industries, asking what to do with obsolete systems that cannot be sold.

Businesses also turn to Technology Recycling when issues related to refurbishing equipment arise such as product liability for the refurbisher and copyright violations for software licenses because there could be patent violations when putting non-approved parts into a computer.

Because the company classifies computer equipment by serial number before it is dismantled, Knowles says his company can certify its disposal process. Once equipment is taken apart, Technology Recycling provides written documents certifying the system's destruction so that companies don't have to worry about confidentiality. This Technology Recycling documentation also can be used to remove the old systems from property tax rosters.

Expanding Beyond

Eventually, Technology Recycling's management believes it can grow by expanding into all facets of automated office equipment, including facsimile machines, copiers, phone systems, mail equipment, mainframes, typewriters, uninterruptable power supply devices (UPSs), and all networking equipment such as routers, bridges and servers. In fact, in February, the company announced its ability to collect and dispose of several types of high-tech junk. Plans also are under way to expand into selected areas of Europe.

Knowles believes that business will continue to be good into 2001, predicting that Technology Recycling will divert another 500 tons of obsolete computers from landfills in 2001.

For information, call (800) 803-5442, or visit

K. Courtney DeWinter is a free-lance writer based in Denver.