July 8, 2008

Tech Trash Dealers Get With the Program to Salvage Old Computers

By Jeffrey Weiss, The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 8--Tech trash is the fastest-growing category of American garbage. While computers and their assorted peripherals are still a relatively tiny tributary to the national waste stream, they are numerous enough to represent a problem -- and an opportunity.

As garbage goes, e-waste is potentially more valuable than most. The electronic parts include precious metals, the wires have valuable copper, and even the plastic cases can be ground up into reusable material. So a developing recycling industry has grown to meet the demand.

Monitex in Grand Prairie is one of several local companies to work with tossed-out technology. As the name hints, the company pays particular attention to computer monitors, many of which are thrown away long before the picture tube has worn out.

A "cathode ray tube," or CRT, has an average lifetime of more than 15 years, Monitex president Ferris Segovia said. Most computers are junked in less than five years.

Much of Monitex's business is devoted to finding those CRTs that are still in good enough shape for resale and reuse -- mostly in cheap television sets sold in Asia, Africa and South America. But the company wastes no part of a computer.

"It's hard to claim 100 percent, but we're very close," he said.

While Monitex accepts drop-offs from individuals, the vast majority of its equipment comes from companies that specialize in large corporate renovations. When a big business decides to upgrade its computers, it typically hires a company to bring in the new and haul out the old. That kind of company works with Monitex, which pays for the monitors it can reuse and charges to reprocess the other material for recycling.

Monitex has received material from every state but California, which has its own state-mandated laws about computer recycling.

Monitex gets between three and 10 truckloads of tech trash a day, which adds up to more than 80,000 items per month. Workers quickly separate the keyboards and processors from the monitors. About 5 percent of the monitors are in such good shape that they can be resold as is. About 65 percent have CRTs that are still good enough to refurbish. The remaining 30 percent are broken down into their parts -- glass and metals -- and recycled as raw materials.

For all the technical sophistication of the material, the process is astonishingly low-tech. Human eyes and hands (aided by a few power tools) are still the best way to evaluate the material and take it apart, Mr. Segovia said.

BY THE NUMBERS: Things you can get from that old box

-- An average PC (not including the monitor) is typically 40 percent steel, 30 percent to 40 percent plastic,

10 percent aluminum and 10 percent other metals, including copper, gold, silver, cadmium and platinum.

-- Each cathode ray tube monitor contains 4 to 6 pounds of lead.

-- Some studies estimate that as much as 75 percent of old, used equipment is in storage, where it takes up space and becomes more obsolete and less valuable.

-- Calculating by population, it is estimated that 1.5 million computers are discarded in Texas annually, with roughly 162,000 recycled, leaving more than 1.3 million units assumed to be stored or sent to landfills.

SOURCE: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality


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