19 April 2004 Dell is to announce plans to improve its recycling of PCs and servers, with the aim of increasing the amount of equipment it recycles by half.
The plan will be backed by US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and should encourage rivals to follow suit. Hewlett-Packard (HP) has doubled the credit it gives to people who use its online recycling service towards new purchases, but only in April as a special offer for the EPA’s “Earth Day” initiative.
Dell’s record on recycling has often been attacked in the past by environmentalists, not least for using prisoners to dismantle old equipment. The computer industry has also been criticised for the widespread practice of shipping old PCs to third world countries, where workers are exposed to a variety of toxins while they strip the machines.
As well as the EPA, Dell has consulted on its environmental programme with the Calvert Group, an ethical investment company, and As You Sow, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting corporate social responsibility.
Calvert analysts have called for common standards for measuring progress on recycling and say they have also been in discussions with IBM and HP.
Pat Nathan, director of sustainable business at Dell, said that his work with Calvert had revealed that one in three businesses were unaware of the environmental liabilities to their company of throwing out old PCs.
Both the frequency with which IT equipment is upgraded and the hazardous materials contained in the hardware has led to concern that computers are the “new fridges” — mass-produced goods which need careful management before disposal.
Harmful substances that can be released into the environment when PCs are dumped in landfill sites include lead, cadmium, mercury, carcinogenic asbestos, tin, arsenic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other plastic waste.
Dell is the latest computer company to try to reduce its environmental “footprint”. Earlier this month, Intel said it would cut the amount of lead in its microprocessors by 95%, to prevent health problems caused by leakage when the chips are dumped. Other chipmakers, including Advanced Micro Devices and National Semiconductor, have also begun to cut their lead usage.
Lead is a particular problem in computer disposal, as cathode ray tubes in monitors contain up to three and a half kilos each to shield users from radiation. Estimates suggest that up to 450 million kilos of lead from old computers and other electronic equipment will need to be dealt with over the next decade.
Microsoft has agreed to open up its licensing to promote a “vibrant community” of PC refurbishers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, with its “Microsoft Authorised Refurbishers” (MAR) programme and recruitment drive.
In Europe, vendors and users are being forced to face up to their responsibilities following the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which will become law in the UK in August 2004.