Computer recycling

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

JEFF PICKELL

For the last hundred years, it’s been the specialty of Goodwill Industries to turn a profit off of second-hand merchandise, either by finding someone to buy it or turning it into something that can be sold.

The list of donated items Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Michigan can’t use is short. Until recently, donated personal computers topped it.

goodwill-computer For logistical reasons, Goodwill chooses not to resell computers, and in the past, the organization didn’t have a means of recycling them, said Linda Gentry, Goodwill’s director of marketing in southeast Michigan. This meant that every machine that came in hurt the group’s bank account, and the environment.

“If people donate things we can’t use, we have to pay to get them removed. Since landfill costs are huge, we try to do whatever we can to make sure absolutely nothing ends up there,” Gentry said.

The biggest shame was that perfectly good components and raw materials were going to waste, she said.

Now, thanks to a state-wide partnership between the Goodwill Industries of Michigan and the Dell Corporation, donated computers aren’t going anywhere near the dump. In addition, they’ll help create area jobs and put money back in Goodwill’s coffers.

The fledgling recycling program, called RECONNECT, aims to divert 3.3 million pounds of computers and computer accessories from landfills this year. Two weeks ago, the Adrian Goodwill began including local workers in the process.

The project is the newest opportunity for Goodwill employees to flourish in the workplace. Of the 250 workers on the payroll at the Adrian building, most were referred there due to some kind of workplace disability—injury, physical or mental disability, even the inability to speak English.

Goodwill’s goal is to make these prospective workers employable, and newcomers achieve this by consulting with coaches and gaining job experience in areas that fit their interests.

The new disassembly line at the Adrian headquarters provides one such job training option.

For the first eight months of the RECONNECT partnership, donated computers were shipped out of the state to be taken apart. However, Goodwill organizers recently calculated that it would be cheaper to disassemble the machines locally, then ship them directly to the recycler.

But not all machines need to be recycled. It’s the responsibility of the line’s two to three new employees to identify which units might be resold whole, and which have reached the end of their cycle.

Wearing gloves and goggles to protect themselves from dust and sharp edges, workers pack up the newer computers and use wedges and power wrenches to dismantle the older ones. Afterward, the individual components are sorted into their appropriate shipping boxes.

The units are next sent to Dell’s contracted recycling firm, re.Source Partners, in Mount Clemens, Mich., where they’re either remarketed or sold for scrap. Its re.Source’s policy that none of the parts end up in a landfill.

That’s important to Gentry for several reasons.

“A lot of thrown away computers find their ways to landfills in Third World countries where the hazardous materials inside aren’t disposed of properly. You read about them making the locals sick,” she said. “It’s important for us to keep them out of landfills. Our goals are to not add to pollution and to not waste money.”

The RECONNECT partnership is currently about halfway through its trial year, but Gentry said the volume of donations Goodwill has received so far makes it promising that the contract will be extended.

• Computers can be donated at the Goodwill headquarters on Beecher Street in Adrian and at the Goodwill store on Main Street. There is no cost to donate. Neither Dell nor Goodwill Industries will take responsibility for data left on the computer.
Donations of computer accessories, such as mouse, monitor, printer, scanner and ink cartridge are also accepted.

Future of recycling 

By JEFF PICKELL

Fifteen years ago, nobody was talking about turning a profit by recycling computers. Six years ago, re.Source Partners, a firm dedicated exclusively to recycling computers was founded. Last year, re.Source reported 167 percent growth and was named one of Michigan’s 50 Companies to Watch at a Michigan Works! conference.

Does that mean there’s a future in recycling computers?

Jeff Korona certainly hopes so. An account manager at the Mt. Clemens-based firm, he says re.Source was founded with the intent of exploiting a market that didn’t exist a decade ago.

It’s not that people weren’t buying computers in the early and mid-90s, he said. They just weren’t throwing them out.

“The difference between now and 10 or 15 years ago is that when a computer was purchased, it was going on a desk that never had one before. Now, it’s displacing one that was already there,” he said.

And these days, big businesses—re.Source lists American Express, Kmart, and Flagstar Bank as clients—are displacing computers faster than ever.

Large companies, especially financial institutions, are becoming more reliant on up-to-date technology, Korona said. But new computers cost money, as does properly disposing of old ones.

This is where re.Source comes in.

It makes little sense to trash a perfectly good crop of two-year-old computers because they can’t keep up with the pace of business, Korona said, particularly when there are plenty of people who would buy them.

That’s how the company makes its money. When a shipment of computers arrives at re.Source, workers assess which components can be salvaged and resold, and which have reached the end of their life cycle.

The resellable parts are refurbished and remarketed—sometimes to businesses with less sophisticated computer needs, but also to customers at the company store.

Meanwhile, parts that can’t be reused are sold for scrap. Copper and lead alloys are melted down to make fire hydrants and well pipes; aluminum is converted to material for pistons and automotive wheel parts; iron goes into constructing I-beams and angle iron; glass is used in batteries; and plastics are broken into pellets that serve various uses.

In the end, re.Source shares between 40 and 60 percent of the total profit from the sale of the components with the client. Along with relieving the financial sting from liquidating old machines, there are other benefits to using a computer recycler.

“It’s important for people to know that we handle the machines in a landfill-free manner,” Korona said. He explained that environmentally-friendly policies are an increasing public relations draw for corporations.

Another draw is the assurance that the information on the computers is disposed of properly—re.Source is required to erase its clients’ hard drives and keep records of the units’ serial numbers. The service is especially important for banks and credit card companies, which deal in sensitive financial information, Korona said.

To Korona, it’s good sense and good business to recycle computers. By using re.Source last year, he said, his clients saved money and, at the same time, kept a combined 200,000 computers out of landfills.

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