June 14, 2007 1:24 PM PDT

HP grindhouse: Where old PCs go to die

ROSEVILLE, Calif.--Being environmentally friendly is quite fashionable, but it's not exactly pretty, as I discovered at the Hewlett-Packard Recycling Center.

It's here that everything from video cassettes to server racks to notebooks, CRT monitors and multifunction printers go to die. But they're not allowed to pass away quietly; instead, they're ground and melted down to almost unrecognizable chunks of motherboards and copper dust.

It used to be that consumers just set old monitors or printers on the sidewalk with a "free" sign, and corporations sent massive shipments straight to the local landfill. But electronics recycling programs are getting much more attention these days, and governments have imposed strict regulations on how to get rid of electronics. So now when you ship a broken video camera or router back to the manufacturer, it could end up in a place like this.

I got to tag along for a tour of the giant--not to mention deafening and oppressively hot--suburban facility just north of Sacramento. My interest in this excursion was two-fold. First, I got to see old electronics hacked to shreds, which is just cool, and second, I got to wear a hard hat and safety goggles.

HP's Roseville recycling center

Corporations, particularly technology companies, are beginning to realize there are significant public relations and other benefits to having a green policy. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 3 million tons of electronic waste, e-waste, get dumped in landfills every year. That's potentially dangerous to consumers and the environment, as materials like cathode ray tube monitors contain lead and mercury, which when placed in landfills can seep into groundwater. And plastics don't biodegrade very well.

HP's recycling efforts are not directly beneficial to the company's bottom line. Though he declined to give specific figures, the product recycling operation in Roseville costs "millions of dollars" a year, said Kenneth Turner, HP's manager of product takeback operations.

"It's not profitable, but it's worth doing for our reputation," he said. Ensuring that the process is done the right way--not putting hazardous materials into the ground--also lessens HP's vulnerability to environmentally oriented lawsuits, he added.

The HP Roseville recycling facility processes 4 million pounds, or 24,000 tons, of electronic hardware per month, not counting ink cartridges, which are recycled at separate plants in Virginia and Tennessee. HP says it's been recycling its products since 1987, but mostly by taking back broken machines and swapping out the reusable parts. Ten years later, HP built the Roseville plant with what the company claims is the first electronics shredding machine.

The facility, which operates almost continuously, isn't just for HP products. Instead, many electronics companies send their leftovers, their unwanted and broken products there. The 200,000-square-foot facility receives what looks like up to half a football field's worth of unwanted electronics per day, including returns from individual customers.

Facing the air guns and screwdrivers
Inside the massive facility, pallets of gray copiers are stacked next to shrink-wrapped packages of mismatched monitors awaiting slow, painful deaths. But before they get to the grinding machine, most electronics first have to face a horde of men and women armed with air guns and screwdrivers.

Hunched over their desks in blue lab coats, the recycling center employees swiftly strip machines of their innards, separating them for the grinding process. One petite, affable-looking woman made quick work of a stack of black notebook PCs--folding the screen open, snapping the plastic hinge with a loud crack, removing the LCD screen, then flipping it over to remove both the main battery and smaller button cell battery. The PCs' plastic casing, batteries and screen are all divided and ground separately.

The hazardous materials--mercury bulbs in old CRT televisions and monitors, batteries, and inkjet and laserjet cartridges--are teased out and sent elsewhere to be melted down right away, but the rest face the granular shredder, which sounds as painful as it looks.

We tourists got to see the grinding action up close. Climbing the metal steps of the gigantic machine, we were met with a cacophonous rumble. My notebook and hands were instantly covered in a fine sheen of dust, or more likely, the remnants of unwanted technology. The first step of the process minces the material into 4-inch shards. The precious metals, like gold, silver, platinum and copper, are collected and sent to a smelter, where they are melted down and sold for reuse. What's left rumbles by on a conveyor belt for a second grind, this time into 2-inch pieces. A giant magnet then picks out the small pieces of steel.

Next is another conveyor belt with positively charged tubes on each end. The tubes create an Eddy current, which causes the aluminum pieces to bounce around, separating itself from the plastics.

The end result is a 5,000-pound box of silicon, glass, and plastic confetti, which is shipped out to a separate contracted facility and reused to make auto body parts, clothes hangers, plastic toys, fence posts, serving trays, roof tiles--and maybe even your next PC.

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8 comments

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Recycling Facilities
Anybody aware of any of these types of facilities in the Indianapolis area where computers/parts are recycled? I have tons of antique computer equipment that I would like to clear from our warehouse.
Posted by lamaze (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hmm....
Shouldn't there be a train at the crossroads of America that can ship is there? Hehe.
Posted by chuchucuhi (233 comments )
Link Flag
here is a link for you
find what you need:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.recyclingmarkets.net/markets/index.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.recyclingmarkets.net/markets/index.html</a>
Posted by dondarko (261 comments )
Link Flag
Progress
Much better than shipping off e-waste on the black market to places like rural China to be manually salvaged by slave laborers under hazardous work conditions in ways that pollute the local environment.

I hope to see an entire market emerge for recycling e-waste. But I'm afraid there simply isn't much motivation for most businesses to recycle until the price of raw materials climbs to a certain level.

Btw, a lot of the e-waste is created by all the technophiles out there who've constantly got to upgrade their tech every time something new comes out. (I'm using a computer I got in 2000, yes, a veritable relic in computer years.)
Posted by Pokerfish (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
very few people know this...
but there is a company that has two recycling plants in US and one in Europe. The concept behind it is to mimic natural earth process of recycling (think dinosaurs and other plants and animals, being converted into crude oil).

Supposedly the plants are self-sufficient and they don't pollute at all. Byproducts of the plant are pure water, minerals, oil, glass, and other materials. Currently they are running animal leftovers from slaughter and other organic materials, but the process can apply to almost all common market products.

it's called changing world technologies and they've been around for at least 6 years, b/c I've followed their development all along.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://changingworldtech.com/" target="_newWindow">http://changingworldtech.com/</a>
Posted by dondarko (261 comments )
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Reputable Company
I've heard of recycling your laptops but never knew how thorough they were. This is a great process, though it may not be profitable it shows us who cares about helping the environment. I commend HP for there efforts and am even happier now to already owning one of there products. Now I'm interested to see what other big companies are dedicated. You have my support HP.
Posted by Sprouty01 (12 comments )
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Just a picky thing
Eddy needn't be capitalized. It's not named after someone; it's descriptive, like an eddy (swirl) of water. From Wikipedia:

An eddy current (also known as Foucault current) is an electrical phenomenon discovered by French physicist Léon Foucault in 1851. ...
Posted by Mellifluous (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Computer Buyback and Recycling Programs attempt to reduce the amount of electronics in landfills by refurbishing for further use or by safely recycling it. Recycling and buyback programs offer customers a simple way to receive cash for their unwanted technology equipment or, if there is no value, recycle it.

There are effective solutions that make it easy for customers to go green. A Computer Buyback and Recycling Program is an example of reducing environmental impact by providing a convenient way for customers to responsibly recycle data center equipment. Environmentally, RICOM is committed to offering products and services that are environmentally practical throughout their life cycles.

Remanufacture and reuse is only one component of the environmental lifecycle. A complete approach to the environment considers all aspects of a product's lifecycle and footprint of a product. Systems that can be upgraded using refurbished components extend the end date of their use. Refurbished components in new products and packaging are an alternative of cost savings.

Hardware asset recovery has value with used equipment Trade-in/trade-up, donation and off lease programs. Buying refurbished technology, established end of life recycling programs is green and good business. New virtualized data center solutions as well as energy star certified products cuts power costs, and consolidates data center real estate. Recycling computers rather than depositing them in landfills or shipping them off for other nations has risk of sensitive data. Disk data sanitation services offers a 3X overwrite process and is considered standard in the industry providing adequate protection against confidential information from being retrievable. According to IBM?s survey, 90% of healthcare service industry respondents perform sanitization of hard drives internally, and only 5% rely on a third party.

RICOM extends environmental technology solutions saving customers money. Electronic products make up the fastest growing segment of our landfill waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2007, more than 63 million computers in the United States were traded in for replacements, or simply thrown out. Discarded computers don't just take up space in a landfill. Careless computer disposal spread toxic wastes of more than 100 chemicals leaching in the soil. Be responsible, reuse certified refurbished equipment, and recycle your aging data center equipment that is cost effective both business and the environmentally.

Green Asset Recovery and Refurbished Solutions, contact RICOM http://www.shopricbsi.com/
Posted by ricominc (10 comments )
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