OEMS UNDERTAKE QUEST FOR COMPUTER AFTERLIFE

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During the past decade, and particularly during the past five years, computer manufacturers have sought to make their equipment more environmentally friendly by using ``greener'' materials, and design techniques that allow for easy disassembly.

One study by the New York-based Carnegie Mellon Institute for Technical Management shows that U.S. businesses throw away more than 10 million personal computers annually. Austin-based Dell Computer Corp. wants to do something about that, so the company announced it will make PCs marketed to business and government recyclable by using plastic materials that do not contain fillers and coatings.

Significant changes have been made to the components of Dell's OptiPlex PC line, sold to business, government and education customers in more than 150 countries and territories.

The company's OptiPlex business PCs now will have the Dell OptiFrame chassis, made of ABS without fillers or coatings, which inhibit recyclability. Dell also changed the chassis design, to make the computer easier to maintain and upgrade, thereby extending the PC's life.

Recycling the computer at the end of its useful life is made easier because the plastic and metal can be separated using a screwdriver. The plastic is identified and marked in accordance with international ISO standards.

``Our industry adds more than 60 million PCs to the market every year,'' said George Martin, vice president and general manager of the Dell OptiPlex product group. ``So the question now is, what do you do with these PCs when they become obsolete?''

One of the biggest hurdles to recycling PCs is the shielding. Manufacturers long have fought the battle over how to provide the electromagnetic and radio frequency interference shielding necessary to protect delicate electronic instruments, while at the same time addressing recycling issues. The subject is particularly sensitive in Europe, where the manufacturer ultimately is responsible for the product's disposal.

The Dell OptiPlex GXpro PC recently received Blue Angel certification in Germany, which means it conforms to design specifications, including recyclability. Dell's use of a steel inner housing eliminates most of the recycling problems connected with spray-on shieldings or metal-filled plastic materials.

Like Dell, other computer original equipment manufacturers continue to search for answers to both environmental and end-of-life questions for their products. J. Ray Kirby, manager of IBM's Engineering Center for Environmentally Conscious Products — Networking Systems in Research Triangle Park, N.C., said IBM in 1991 began looking at how it chould be more environmentally responsible. He made his comments at the recent Plastics for Portable and Wireless Electronics Conference, sponsored by the Electrical and Electronic Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers in Phoenix.

IBM concluded that monitor glass is the most costly part of the computer to recycle, but plastics present by far the most challenges, Kirby said.

``Plastics represent approximately 7 percent to 9 percent of the total weight of a computer,'' he said, ``but plastics used in PCs could exceed 200 million pounds in 1996.''

In 1992, IBM became the first computer maker to code plastic components to aid recycling.

``Getting it in the right pile to begin with is a good place to start,'' Kirby said.

Putting in place a take-back program is difficult. Kirby said collecting old equipment from individual owners is virtually impossible.

That is where asset-management companies come into play, collecting equipment from a variety of sources, then recycling the materials.

Spokesman Bill Robbins said Dell takes back computers from its large, corporate customers no matter what brand, offering in return discounts toward the purchase of new Dell computers.

Environmental Protection Agency regulations ``say you just can't throw old computers out in the trash,'' said Robbins, adding that often Dell can upgrade much of the older equipment and resell it in countries that are only beginning to use computers.

Another end-of-life challenge in recycling computer plastics is the mix of plastics.

``Too much plastic materials come from computers made eight to 10 years ago, not two years ago,'' Kirby said.

That means a company has a mix of materials with very different properties that might make reuse in other applications difficult.