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E-cycle, Reboot, Reuse

IT'S GREAT TO HAVE THE LATEST COMPUTER, BUT WHAT HAPPENS TO THE old one? You can’t just throw it away. PCs contain a slew of toxic materials that pollute landfills. For example, that 17-inch color monitor might be hiding up to 10 pounds of lead and other heavy metals like mercury and nickel. And the CPUs themselves? They typically contain toxins such as arsenic, zinc, aluminum, cobalt, and copper.

There has to be a better way, and Temple University (Pa.) may have found it. Temple’s computer Recycling Center brings old computers back to life while saving the environment. “We had a university policy that people had to call our facilities department to have anything removed,” says Tim O’Rourke, CIO and VP of Computer and Financial Services. “The facilities department would charge $50 to $75 to send someone out to do the job, so that was a disincentive. People thought it was cheaper to just go down to the trash bin to throw out an old computer. That was a big problem for us. It was a problem economically because we weren’t recycling anything, and it was a problem for the environment because we knew that these computers were just getting dumped.”

Temple initiated a policy that anyone who bought a computer through the university also paid a $50 recycling fee at the time of purchase. “That money went into a fund that enabled us to hire two full-time employees. Now when someone is done with a computer they call our recycling department and these guys get the computer,” O’Rourke explains.

The PC is stripped of software, and data is wiped from disks. Then, if the computer is viable, the CRC gets it back into service.

“We have a step-down approach,” says O’Rourke. “The first thing we do is try and get it back into service in the university. We have a shopping cart on our website where departments can buy a refurbished computer.” The cost? Just the same $50 recycling fee. If a computer sits for 30 or more days, the CRC will sell it to students or faculty for home use, again for $50. The final step is to donate it to a community group or a church.

“If a computer is not viable, we have an EPA-certified firm that will pick it up free and dispose of it properly,” O’Rourke says. The CRC will also salvage usable parts from these computers. “We have a spare parts inventory to keep them running as long as we can,” he adds.

Besides being kinder to the environment, the CRC has saved Temple money on new computer purchases. “Since 2003 we have refurbished over 5,000 computers,” says O’Rourke. “Of those, more than 1,800 have been put into university departments. So even based on a low-end price of $500 for a new computer, those 1,800 computers have saved nearly a million dollars for the school.”

For most purposes the refurbished PCs fit the bill, he says. “A lot of these computers are still good machines for basic word processing and so on. We have faculty members who have gotten 20 or 30 computers for a class.”

O’Rourke notes that as far as he knows Temple is the only institution taking e-cycling to this level, especially with the upfront $50 recycling fee. “It has paid for itself many times over both from a financial standpoint and from a sustainability standpoint.”

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