What to do with old PCs? EBay weighs in

Old electronic and computer equipment await collection in a recent recycling campaign in Washington, D.C. But just 10 percent of unwanted PCs are recycled, according to activists. Kamenko Pajic / Sipa Press file
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

EBay Inc., Intel Corp. and others have launched a recycling program to motivate Americans to safely dispose of mounting piles of used computers and other electronic gadgets.

U.S. consumers retire or replace roughly 133,000 personal computers per day, according to research firm Gartner Inc. EBay lists roughly $2.5 billion worth of new and used computers every year, as well as $2.5 billion worth of consumer electronics such as cellular phones, gaming equipment and hand-held computers.

But because relatively few people are willing to pay for professional recycling, and many don’t want to dispose of hard drives that contain personal data, machines often end up in basements, garages and spare bedrooms. If improperly disposed, PCs can leak a plethora of toxins into the environment, including lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury.

'Rethink' Web site
“You don’t want to throw them out, and you don’t know what to do with them,” said eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, who on Thursday launched the “Rethink” initiative at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The effort is centered around a Web site, ebay.com/rethink, where Americans with unused gadgets can get information on how to get rid of them safely. The site includes a downloadable program that will erase all data from hard drives, ensuring that the owners’ financial and other data can’t be shared.

Other corporate sponsors include Apple Computer Inc., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., International Business Machines Corp. and Ingram Micro Inc., as well as the U.S. Postal Service, which in some cases will help deliver PCs to eBay drop-off locations or recycling centers.

According to a study commissioned by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, roughly half of all U.S. households have working but unused consumer electronics products. And only 10 percent of unwanted PCs are recycled, according to the Grass Roots Recycling Network.

Roughly 400 million gizmos will be thrown out by 2010, the coalition study estimated.

Resale or recycle
The gizmos, ranging from old MP3 players and home media centers to million-dollar servers at large corporations, can be resold via the eBay site. Or eBay will connect owners with charities, such as educational nonprofits that distribute used PCs to poor communities.

Or consumers can simply dispose of products at nearby recycling centers, which will be listed on the site. Rethink will only link to recyclers that promise not to dump the machines in landfills in developing nations — a growing source of environmental toxins in China and southeast Asia.

Ted Smith, leader of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and a frequent critic of the computer industry’s track record on recycling, said that eBay’s willingness to act as a neutral broker was crucial to winning his group’s support.

“They’ve got 120 million people coming to their site. That’s the key number here,” Smith said, adding that the goal is to "drive business to local recyclers."