Business is booming for computer recycler

April 14, 1993|By New York Times News Service

BELLEVILLE, N.J. -- Eric Buechel tours his domain at a brisk pace, assessing his inventory with the pragmatic humor of an undertaker. In his warehouse sit rows of hulking computers, each weighing tons. They once whirred and flashed, but now they rest cold, unplugged, discarded.

"This is where mainframes come to die," Mr. Buechel declared, smiling and patting one of the big metal boxes with mercenary affection.

Mr. Buechel's company, Advanced Recovery Inc., is an entrepreneurial response to a looming environmental problem: millions of obsolete computers.

This unwelcome byproduct of the computer age, oddly, is the result of technology's virtuous spiral -- ever-lower prices for increasingly powerful machines.

Consequently, American businesses and individuals are discarding their old mainframes, personal computers and work stations at a rate of more than 10 million a year.

Recognizing the problem, the computer industry and the federal government have begun collaborating to cope with this high-tech headache. A joint industry-government study last month concluded that developing a "green work station" -- one easier to upgrade or recycle than discard -- is now "both a business and technological issue, not simply a mission for the environmentalist movement."

If the pace of discarding continues, some 150 million computer carcasses will reside in the nation's landfills by the year 2005, according to a Carnegie-Mellon University study. The disposal costs alone for the machines could be $1 billion, ignoring the landfill space required -- an acre of land dug to a depth of three and a half miles, room to stack about 15 Empire State Buildings end to end.

"The numbers are huge and it could be an enormous environmental problem," said Mark Greenwood, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's office of pollution prevention.

"But we also believe that companies can make choices in the design and manufacture of computers that reduce the environmental impact, and open up great new areas for recycling."

Which is precisely the opportunity Mr. Buechel sees for Advanced Recovery, a 2-year-old company that has become one of the nation's largest computer recyclers. Business is booming.

Situated 10 miles west of Manhattan, the nine-person company is handling 400,000 pounds of computers and other electronic gear a month, four times the volume of a year ago. Mr. Buechel, the 34-year-old president, expects revenues to jump to $3 million this year, and he's looking for more space.

Outside the warehouse, there are piles of personal computers of every make and model, some clearly outdated but others just a few years old. "A hot machine one year is tossed out the next," Mr. Buechel said.

At Advanced Recovery, the cast-off computers are pulled apart and mined for metals from aluminum to gold. The semiconductor chips are plucked out and sold to parts wholesalers and computer maintenance shops. But what can't be resold is trucked away -- and dumped in a nearby landfill.

The computer industry, now hoping to largely eliminate the landfill from the machines' life cycle, is proving a willing conscript to the green movement. Many of the industry's leaders grew up in the 1960s and '70s, reading the Whole Earth Catalogue and schooled in the tenets of environmentalism.

It is also an industry accustomed to change and attuned to international standards -- and aware that Europe, led by Germany, is taking some pioneering steps in recycling computers.

The U.S. government views the computer-industry effort as a model of its new "Design for Environment" program in which business and government collaborate early to prevent pollution rather than having the EPA be the cop that tries to catch corporate polluters after they have damaged the environment.

This collaborative approach, along with stressing the competitive and marketing advantages of green products, is to be a hallmark of the Clinton administration.

"And the computer industry is a very good partner," said Mr. Greenwood of the EPA.

The industry's collaborative approach seems to have been a success on another environmental front: energy conservation.

For more than a year, computer companies and the EPA have worked to cut electricity consumption of desktop personal computers by half, by putting them in the electronic equivalent of hibernation when they are turned on but not being used.

Prototypes, which deploy energy-saving chips and circuitry, were demonstrated last fall. The EPA will begin issuing "Energy Star" logos for approved machines in June, and the machines are expected to be widely available by next year. Dozens of companies have signed up, including IBM, Apple, Compaq, Dell and Zenith Data Systems.

The EPA estimates that converting the computer population to the Energy Star standards will result in an energy saving of 26 billion kilowatts annually by the year 2000. That amounts to the yearly electricity consumption of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine combined, said Brian Johnson, director of the Energy Star program.

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