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The Rise of the Disposable Computer
By Bob Kelleher
August 23, 1999

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Yesterday's personal computers are becoming today's junk. It's often less expensive to purchase a new PC than it would be to repair or upgrade even a slightly used model. Meanwhile, the replaced computers are piling up in closets and storerooms across the state, leaving Minnesotans wondering how to get rid of the things.

BEHIND A DULUTH COMPUTER STORE, workers are filling their second semitrailer truck, early into a weeklong collection of used electronics. Computer monitors and printers are scattered throughout a small mountain of very used turntables, TVs, and stereos destined for a recycling service in the Twin Cities.

Computers are rapidly piling up, as households and businesses replace ailing and outdated PCs. It's hard enough to dispose of a broken computer. But it's even difficult to unload one that's in perfect working condition, although a little bit used.

Duluth's Computer Renaissance store buys, sells, and trades new and used computers and components. But store manager Norris Klesman says many customers are surprised to find there's not much value in even slightly used computers.

Klesman: Yeah, they get shocked, to be honest. One of the problems, too, is when some of those machines came out you were supposed to be able to have an upgrade path. The problem is the upgrade path doesn't exist anymore because the whole industry has changed.
Klesman says a Packard Bell computer that sold new for more than $2,000 last year is worth used just a couple of hundred now. And Klesman says many components are cheaper to replace than repair. Computer equipment is becoming disposable. Klesman says keyboards are a perfect example.
Klesman: Somebody spills Coke on it; 'I want you to fix the keyboard.' Well, they pay me 60 bucks an hour; I can sell them one for 15 bucks. They're just not worth fixing.
One solution is to give the old PC to charity. But many schools, churches, and charities have become wary of accepting used machines. Al Kropuemske heads up a State of Minnesota project to rehabilitate used computers for use by school kids across the state. But, he says they can only use systems with a computer chip of model 486 or better. He says there's little demand anywhere for the old 286 or 386 systems.
Kropuemske: And one of the things that we do with every computer that we refurbish is that we load it with the Windows 95 operating system. And in order to be able to use that operating system, it needs to be at least a midrange 486 with a fairly large hard drive and quite a bit of memory.

The Minnesota Computers for Schools project uses inmate employees in the Stillwater and Lino Lakes Correctional facilities to rehab donated computers. Fourteen thousand refurbished PCs have been placed in schools across Minnesota.

Kropuemske says they do their best to avoid throwing any part of them away. And that's not just good intentions; in many places it's the law. Computer components are banned from landfills across Wisconsin and in some Minnesota counties. The federal government has classified used computers as hazardous waste. Each computer monitor contains up to two pounds of lead, while other components include toxic materials like mercury, PCB's, lithium, cadmium, and phosphorous.

Dragnet Computer Recycling of Minneapolis was formed nine years ago to provide information-age technology to disabled and economically disadvantaged people. The nonprofit's president, Gordon Gillesby, says they soon began restoring computers for their clients. He says Dragnet will have processed 100,000 computers by year's end, with 93 percent being put back in service. Gillesby says computers that can't be restored are disassembled and recycled.

Gillesby: The reality is almost everything sooner or later is going to break and have to be properly disposed. But, it's a cost-effective way in our opinion, to get people baseline computer skills that can help them live independently and not have to be dependent on welfare.
Dragnet accepts all computer components, regardless of age or operation, although they may charge a nominal fee to cover disposal costs.

Henry Fisher is a regional planner with the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. The Department is cosponsoring the statewide program now underway to collect household electronics for demanufacturing and recycling. They've struck partnerships with private groups like the American Plastics Council, Sony Electronics, and the Asset Recovery Group of Waste Management Incorporated. The program is intended to safely recycle components and seek ways that electronics can be made more recyclable.

It's unclear early in the program whether recycling will ever be economically feasible for computers and other electronic devices.

Fisher: I think what we'll learn through this research is there's opportunities here; I think that's gonna be the bottom line. We may find that other options in terms of recovery work the best, in terms of cost, but I think this partnership is going to find a lot of opportunities for both industry and government to work together.
The Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance maintains a list of recyclers, available through a phone call. Or, the statewide electronics collection continues for the next several weeks, with pickup locations changing every few days among 30 Minnesota counties.