January 16, 2008 4:00 AM PST

Refurbishing an old approach to PC recycling

There is an easy, cheap, and environmentally friendly way to recycle PCs, cell phones, and other electronics, according to Jeff Ziegler, CEO of Austin's TechTurn: reuse them.

The company, one of many that specialize in disposing of old electronics, says refurbishing offers the most efficient alternative to dealing with the world's growing mound of e-waste. Energy doesn't get wasted pulling old computers apart and melting down components into raw materials. Additionally, energy and natural resources aren't consumed for a new PC because the old one has effectively usurped demand for it.

Approximately 80 percent of the notebooks that come into the company's facility get refurbished and resold. The rest get picked apart and sold by component, or munched and melted.

"We are selling laptops that are 10 to 12 years old," he said.

PC refurbishment has been around for years, and it typically has not lived up to its promise. The failure largely can be chalked up to Moore's Law, which describes how computers and other devices get steadily cheaper and better over time. Because of these two factors, resale value drops extremely rapidly. Why buy a used computer if the new one costs about as much?

Photos: From e-waste to art

Circumstances, however, are slowly bringing refurbishing back in vogue. The IT asset recovery business now accounts for about $6 billion in revenue a year, according to David Daoud, an analyst at IDC. Most of that comes from selling refurbs.

"If you focus on PCs only, the volumes are growing, but not as big as refurbishers hope, given the significant demand for such products," he said.

E-waste regulations are a significant driver. The European Union and 4 states have created mandatory recycling measures, and 20 others will likely do so in the next two years.

These laws will force companies and individuals to examine recycling processes, and refurbishing will begin to become more attractive. An oft-cited study written by Eric Williams for the United Nations estimates that recycling consumes 20 times more energy than reuse. The original study says it takes 240 kilograms of fossil fuels (PDF) to make a PC, but that number includes a 17-inch CRT. Even if Williams' estimate is high, a carbon tax--which imposes payments on companies for emissions--would likely work to harden a price difference between new and used systems.

And that pile of e-waste isn't getting any smaller. The United States alone gets rid of about 60 million PCs a year. While corporations hire outside companies to take away their old stuff, individuals are often at a loss.

"There are billions of units sitting in closets right now," Ziegler said.

Meanwhile, the electronics market is also beginning to penetrate low-income emerging nations, where large segments of the population can't afford new gear, even with the rate of price declines.

Demand for refurbished gear is also increasing in the States and Europe. Parents want to give kids laptops at earlier and earlier ages. Many families have bought digital TVs and are now putting in second sets in the other rooms.

LG, Westinghouse, and others showed off new bedroom and kitchen PCs at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. With a second or third PC, customers become more price-sensitive and less focused on performance: it's going to be used to only surf the Web, after all. eBay, to some degree, has acclimated the public to used electronics.

"Your 3-year-old plasma (TV) may be old to you, but not to my daughter," Ziegler said.

Daoud also believes that we may begin to see a drive among manufacturers to encourage corporate users to help the earth by retiring PCs early, like after three years. That sounds counterintuitive, but it makes sense. A PC that gets retired early has a greater resale value, which means fewer PCs going to the chipper.

"The way they convince them (the PC owners) is by sharing the profits of their sale of the marketable units, hence helping reduce the cost of ownership," Daoud said. "Most of the companies that are engaged in (the) refurb market say they do not have enough systems to fulfill global demand, and so pressure is growing to find ways to convince users to retire early."

Naturally, refurbishers still have to hit low price points, which isn't easy. A tour of TechTurn's site shows a lot of notebooks clustered in the $435-$550 range; individual notebooks are anywhere from nearly zero to $200 less than new counterparts.

The online store, however, shows four desktops (with no monitors) selling for less than $200. The company also continues to sell "tens of thousands" of Pentium III laptops. When in stock, these laptops sell for $200 to $300. In other words, they start at close to the same price of the XO from the One Laptop Per Child organization.

What to burnish and what to send to a chipper depends on the circumstances. "Putting $180 worth of work into a $200 laptop is not a good thing," Ziegler said.

Ironically, one of the stumbling blocks toward greater acceptance of refurbished electronics has been the nature of early e-waste laws. California's recycling law tends to encourage recycling over refurbishing. The European Union directives did the same thing, but recent amendments have made it far easier to refurbish old electronics legally under the e-waste laws. India, China, Brazil, and other countries put tariffs on used electronics (though often not on components to make new equipment locally).

Washington state, however, includes refurbishing as part of its e-waste recycling program.

See more CNET content tagged:
recycling, electronics, PC, TV


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
PC Recycling
Is there a check list on the process of upgrading an old PC vs trashing the unit?

Thank you

Posted by jibergmann (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
My home network is mostly old machines. I run two 2+ GHz P4s, an iMac G3, a P III, and 4 laptops... a P III, 2 P2s and an old PowerBook 1400. The Pentiums all run Linux of one distro or another...depending on resources and what I do with it. The P III laptop is my wife's and one PII is my 8 year-old's. My 14 year-old uses the P III desktop.

The point is that no new hardware was used on any of these machines and they all perform normally with new Linux distros. [http://The P II laptops run Puppy 3.01, the P IIIs run Mepis and PCLinuxOS just fine.|http://The P II laptops run Puppy 3.01, the P IIIs run Mepis and PCLinuxOS just fine.]

If you want to do a lot with Windows.....stick to XP on (preferably) nothing older than a fast (400 MHz) PII or a PIII. If you plan on new games?.don?t use an old machine, but for ?normal? work these are workable suggestions.
Posted by Voodoo101 (25 comments )
Link Flag
Re-use vs recycle
This process begins to sound like the automotive business, where cars and trucks are rented out or leased for three years, then passed along to those who can't afford new. One man's trash is another man's treasure. This was written on an old HP P1 running W2K at 633 MHz, it works just fine. Got a second one on eBay for $50. Monitors are Trinitron CRTs, they aren't lightweight or compact, but go on working.
Posted by Bill_I (231 comments )
Reply Link Flag
recycled library computers
I am the "accidental IT" librarian at a small public library district. When we upgrade our public computers, I reformat the hard drives, reinstall the licensed copy of the operating system and give them to our Friends of the Library organization to sell, usually for $75.00 or less, depending on processor, RAM, HD and if any extra software is included. People who purchase them include hobbyists, families who want an older computer for younger children to play older games on without Internet access, and seniors who want to do some simple word processing and just get the general "feel" of a computer without being afraid of breaking it, in the privacy of their own home. I have done this with 16 PCs, four iMacs and 1 G4 in the last three years. Everyone who got one has been happy. It should be noted that these computers never had any sensitive information on them of any kind. When they were in use at the library they were very locked down, with no access to the C: drive for the public and with software installed that "ghosted" the computer back to its original configuration whenever it was rebooted. Staff computers and servers get their hard drives pulled and are given to the Friends to sell for parts only. But they do sell! We rarely have to pay to recycle any hardware.
Posted by lweight (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Big deal - Geeks have been selling for years
Why is this news now? Geeks.com has been selling tons of low priced refurbed laptops and systems for years
Posted by Raabscuttle (428 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Reuse Beats Recyling
There is a reason that reuse comes before recycling - it is because the "3-Rs" are a hierarchy. The idea is to first reduce (consumption) and then reuse, and when reuse is no longer possible THEN recycle. I am glad you are promoting reuse as it has substantial environmental, economic and charitable benefits but is often misunderstood and overlooked. If you are interested in an exploration of reuse in all areas please take a look at my book, ?Choose to Reuse.? (coauthored with Nikki Goldbeck) or contact me about supporting Reuse Opportunities, Inc. a nonprofit I formed to promote reuse. David Goldbeck /cem620@aol.com
Posted by David Goldbeck (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
trade in computers sooner?
The computer manufacturers want companies to buy new computers sooner rather than later, and it's supposed to be better for the environment? Yes, that sounds counter-intuitive, but that's because it's counter-reality.

While that would be better for the manufacturers, it's not going to reduce the number of computers out there. If users hold on to computers longer, the reduced demand will drive prices lower. If the manufacturers want to sell more computers, especially to the poorer nations and consumers, then they will be forced to develop less expensive systems.

Many of the 7 year old systems would be fine if they weren't running Vista, or even XP. I'm not advocating using w98, but if the would-be customers of refurb computers mainly use it for web apps, linux will be more than enough for those users running on a 1 GHz x86 with 256MB of DRAM. No need to feed those systems into the chipper.

Please don't be a shill for the Wintel economy.
Posted by kgsbca (185 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Turn North Dakota into one giant landfill
We can still throw things away that we don't want. Just take a state nobody uses like North Dakota and make it one giant landfill
Posted by lingsun (482 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You cannot refurbish laptops
You cannot realistically refurbish some types of computer, like laptops. Any other computer can be refurbished, but let's face facts here: when a person is looking to get rid of a computer today, it is usually SOOOOOOOOO dated that no one else would want to use it.

That was the case with my old E-Machines computer: I recycled the whole case except for a very few plastic parts and tried to recycle the internals..... but no one wanted them because they were over 6 years old!

After 5 years, a PC is so dated that the only thing it is good for is landfill waste or recycling metals in the motherboard, case and other parts.
Posted by Leria (585 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Refurb laptops
Turn them into digital picture frames cheaper than you can buy smaller ones for.
Posted by kieranmullen (1070 comments )
Link Flag
I "refurbished" my 2001 laptop
It's gotten to the point that even "old" laptops still can be very useful with just a few modifications. For example, I "refurbished" my laptop be deleting all unused software, connecting my DSL service to it, and installing Firefox 1.5 and the free version of Zone Alarm firewall. Now I can easily watch YouTube videos, do online banking and check email. I also have Adobe Illustrator 9 and Photoshop 4 on it...and this is using WindowsMe.

By the way, I wrote this response on it. :)
Posted by eastmanweb (71 comments )
Link Flag
Not true
I think you're looking at this from a Windows perspective only. I challenge you to take PCLinuxOS 2007 or Mepis7.0 or Debian 4.0, install it on that 5 year old computer, then tell us how well it runs. You will quickly find that on computers dating back even to 1999 that Linux runs very well on them. Laptops can be a challenge, but I've had ample success running SAMLinux 2007 on Thinkpad 600 laptops, which are Pentium II with less than 200MB RAM.

Check it out.
Posted by stalexone (39 comments )
Link Flag
Always done it anyway
Since our first 486, and then a couple of shop built machines, we have built our own. My kids always wanted more than I need so over time I have used their hand-me-downs to build whatever I need. I used a Toshiba 2595XDVD for years, Nearly 10 years, before my kids felt remorse and gifted me with a Dell Inspiron 1520 not too long ago, And then one of my sons produced a Vista Ultimate package and gifted that to me also. After getting rid of the Dell C: stuff, I am very happy with Ultimate on this machine. I still use the 2595XDVD for it's floppy port, and everything is on our home network. Me - with four computers, son Eric with two, or three, and son Jon with two,
or three. Each son aged 26 (twins) works for a major IT firm. Both went through UW. I can say, as a matter of fact, that everything we do with respect to the reuse of components is a normal experience. Their components trickle down to me.
Posted by OldHackRik (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
North Dakota???
Nah, let's not screw up ND. How about Washington, D.C.? Maybe we could send enough to make it sink.
Posted by Ravin RoadKill (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Shorter Lifecycle = Higher TCO
I agree with my colleague Jeff Ziegler's comments that reuse is the best recycling--a position that that I have advocated to clients since 1998. Shortening asset lifecycles to capture greater resale value accomplishes only two things: higher Total Cost of Ownership for the enterprise, and more sales/profits for the manufacturers. Companies that take a disciplined approach to lifecycle planning understand that even older assets can be resold by those who understand the markets, and that only the OEMs benefit from early retirement.

Bob Houghton, President Redemtech
Posted by rhoughto (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Refurbishing older computers
I have been given older computers and monitors and have refurbished them and supplied them to Welfare clients with families who cannot afford them free of charge.You should see the look on there faces when I have taken it over and set it up for them.
Priceless !
Posted by wilgar67 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Thats cool
The way I look at it as long as you can do a total reload on a hard drive and it can be use to go online regardless of how old it is, then that is cool. I would rather give an old Pc to a fammly that cant aford one than throw it away. Even if it may have an old OS system on it, but at least to that fammly its new to them. Plus they can go online with it besides. It does not matter how old it is . It is how you apply the appercation. I have 4 old pc I use. One used for only garden stuff then an old lap top wife uses in the kitchen for all of her recipe's & dinner idea's. Then one is use as a cd music machine and last the other as an game machine only. Just reformat the hard drive an load an OS system to it and your good to go.
Posted by spunkybandit (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
"Are you wanting to save some money on your next PC? If so, refurbished desktop computers might just be your best option. You see, when you buy refurbished desktop computers for sale, you can get away with paying a much more affordable price without sacrificing quality or worrying about it being in terrible condition.
I was also looking for a refurbished pc.. Bought it from ""ElectroComputerWarehouse"" and the product id is ""dell_gx280_250gb_tower"""
Posted by danishwali (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.