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Junk computers — and their toxic chemicals — piling up in landfills

JACKSON — What happens when the home computer konks out or gets replaced by a faster model?

In Mississippi, junk computers more often than not end up in landfills, but that could someday change as more computers join their kin in the fills and awareness grows of the environmental hazards.

In 1992, computers and monitors made up just 6% of the electronics in the country’s waste stream — today they account for 25%. That number will no doubt grow, considering estimations that by 2004, 100 million computers and TVs will become obsolete annually in the U.S., said Larry Estes, state recycling coordinator with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

In populous states like California and Florida, electronics have been barred from the landfills, and Mississippi could someday follow suit as more and more useless computers are tossed in the trash.

Environmentalists’ concern is the toxic materials found in computers and their monitors — lead and mercury among them. Old computer monitors contain about six pounds of lead, Estes said, and while new computers with their thinner screens have less lead, it is the old computers sitting on closet shelves and in garages that worry environmental groups.

One such group, the newly-formed Electronic Industries Alliance, is headed up by high-tech industry CEOs who maintain the electronics industry should protect the environment by helping consumers recycle their computers. Its web site, www.eiae.org, shows visitors where to take their computers for donations or recycling. The site shows no drop-off points in Mississippi.

On the local level, Estes said some municipalities around the state have expressed interest in starting collection programs for residents who want to get rid of their computers. Many cities already collect hazardous waste like paint and batteries, so it would not be difficult to add an additional trailer for electronics, he said.

“It doesn’t take much to collect a tractor-trailer load of it. Then the city could ship it off to a recycler,” said Estes, adding that DEQ has compiled a list of out-of-state recycling companies for the public. To date, Mississippi has no recycling plants for electronics.

Calls to some of the state’s larger cities did not turn up active computer collection programs for residents, although the City of Jackson is considering such a program through its new Environmental Service Center. The center, which is being funded by a DEQ grant, is scheduled to open late this summer or early fall to collect household chemicals like paint, motor oil and pesticides. If the center does start accepting computers, they would have to be shipped out-of-state to a recycling plant, said Sonya Bohannon, solid waste division manager for the City of Jackson. The key, she added, is to get rid of the computers while keeping the cost down for the city.

Jack’s Recycling and Salvage in Jacksonville, Fla., is one company on DEQ’s list of computer recyclers. Jack’s does a booming business in Florida where it is now illegal to toss a computer in the landfill, said Tracie Curry, Jack’s office manager. The company picks up two or three truckloads a day of unwanted computers — some of which are bought by individuals or computer companies looking for parts or memory. Still more are bought by foreign customers who fly in and buy in bulk.

“With our China companies, if we have scrap they take it and crush it. They’ll come in and want a pallet of monitors whether they work or not,” said Curry. “It’s all recycled in one way or another, but it keeps them from going to the landfill.”

With thousands of employees and a growing pile of aging computers, the State of Mississippi started a computer recycling program about nine months ago to clear off warehouse shelves.

“What we deal with is strictly junk,” said Fred Storey, branch director over property with the Department of Corrections. “The state auditor’s office asked us to find an avenue to get rid of these computers without having to pay for it.”

The Department of Corrections has so far collected about 1,500 junk computers — mostly 286s — from state agencies all over Mississippi. The computers are hauled away by a Florida recycling company which pays the state a small fee — enough to cover the department’s gas used to collect the computers.

Companies like Hewlett-Packard and IBM have started recycling computers for individuals and businesses — but the service isn’t free. HP will pick up computers for a fee of $13 to $34 depending on the type of hardware and the quantity. IBM charges individuals and small businesses a fee of $29.99 per computer including shipping; mid- and large-sized businesses can call the company for a quote. Gateway customers can trade in their old computer for a $50 rebate on a new one.

Estes said DEQ hopes one day to start collecting computers from Mississippi residents and demanufacturing them. Usable components would be removed and sold, and the rest recycled.

For now, many Mississippians will have to find their own ways to recycle their equipment. Computers can, of course, be donated to a school, church, or group like Goodwill Industries, said Estes, but lots of junkers will sit on shelves until people take them out with the trash.

“It’s an issue that’s got to be dealt with,” he said.

For more information on recycling electronics, call DEQ at (601) 961-5036.

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1027.


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