Y2K legacy creates PC-disposal headache

Y2K fears drove a generation of companies to upgrade their PCs. Four years on, those systems need to be replaced - but such a mammoth upgrade has serious environmental implications

Four years on and most of the millennium-proofed PCs drafted in to weather the IT cataclysm-that-never-was are approaching the end of their lives. Worldwide, businesses are set to replace about 220 million PCs by the end of next year – easily surpassing the number of systems replaced in the run-up to Y2K in 1998 and 1999, according to analyst Gartner.

"Our first quarter results suggest the Y2K replacement cycle that vendors have been anticipating for more than a year is under way," says George Shiffler, principal analyst for Gartner's client platforms research.

600 million obsolete machines
The gargantuan volume of replacements in the coming months raises some "intriguing questions and dilemmas… what, for example, will happen to all those replaced PCs?" asks the analyst group.

The impact of this much kit ending up in landfill sites has some environmental groups up in arms. The Fifth Annual Computer Report Card, issued in May by the US environmental organisation Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition (SVTC), claims that the number of obsolete machines in the US could be as a high as 600 million -- containing up to 1.2 billion pounds of lead.

Growing portion of the waste stream
"The health effects of lead on children are well known and just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 acres of lake," the report claims.

The group also estimates that about 40 percent of the heavy metals in landfills, including lead, mercury and cadmium, comes from discarded electronic devices. "Discarded computer and other consumer electronics (so called e-waste) is the fastest growing portion of our waste stream – growing almost three times faster than our overall municipal waste stream," the report adds.

It may be a little late but legislators in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the US, are working hard to make it as costly and as difficult as possible for defunct PCs to simply be dumped on landfill, and are forcing vendors and customers to accept more responsibility for disposal and recycling.

The EU Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) directive will become law in the UK from August 2004 – although it won't be properly enforced till 2006. The main aim of the legislation is to make manufacturers and consumers more responsible for the disposal of old machines.

Drive-up PC prices
Making vendors more responsible will increase their costs, and Gartner believes those costs will ultimately be passed on to end-user organisations. In a research note that Gartner issued earlier this year, entitled EU's New Recycling Rules could Drive-Up European PC Prices, the analyst group estimated that legal changes could add $60 to the price of PCs in Europe by 2005.

"From 2004, budgets should incorporate the costs of equipment disposal. From 2005, budgets should be allocated for a separate recycling fee. This will most likely be included in the purchase price of new PCs," said Gartner.

Keen to be green
The world's largest PC manufacturer, Dell, refused to 'speculate on any figures' when questioned on the accuracy on Gartner's predictions of a possible price-hike. All a spokesperson for the vendor would say is that WEEE would affect different countries in different ways and that Dell's direct selling model would continue to give it an advantage over its competition.

 "In terms of this report, it is too early to speculate but the costs will reside in different places for different countries, I think that is where we are right now," says Lena Pripp, Dell EMEA Sustainable Business Development manager.

It may be reluctant to speculate on the pricing impact of the WEEE legislation, but Dell is keen to be seen as green. In a statement issued late last month, the company said it was committed to boosting the recovery of used computer products by 50 percent compared to the amount collected in the last fiscal year. "We've shown that Dell can continue to grow while being environmentally responsible," said Dell chairman and chief executive officer Michael Dell. "We are determined to address the challenge of raising computer recycling rates globally and being the first in the industry to set public recovery goals."

But despite these ambitious targets, the company admits that current recovery rates represent less than 10 percent of Dell products sold in 2000. "We have a significant challenge ahead of us this year… we're happy with the direction of the numbers but we must increase our recovery rates." 

According to the SVTC, Dell has definitely improved its approach to recycling -- climbing from the bottom rung of the environmental group's annual report card last year to second place in 2004. "This transformation is largely due to the company's launch of a domestic recycling programme and the elimination of prison labour for processing hazardous waste."

HP, which achieved the top slot in the SVTC report card, is also keen to be seen as proactive on the recycling front. Last year, it launched an e-coupon scheme in the US. This rewarded customers with up to $100 off the purchase of any new product on its ecommerce site, hpshopping.com, when recycling hardware from any manufacturer through its recycling service.

Hazardous waste
HP also claims to recycle an average of 3.5 million pounds of equipment each month in the US. But although this figure is laudable, it is hard to gauge how effective the company's efforts are because it currently does not track returned and recycled products against sales numbers.

Overall, the SVTC claims that PC vendors have a long way to go before their approach to recycling and disposal is up to snuff. The group claims that most of the changes implemented by the likes of HP and Dell are being driven by policy and consumer pressure. "It a thousand mile journey begins with a first step, then the journey toward environmental sustainability begins with manufacturers taking responsibility for the environmental performance of their products, from the design stage to recycling and disposal," said SVTC spokesperson Ted Smith.

From purchase to disposal
IT managers mainly concerned with buying the next new shiny piece of equipment may need to accommodate the idea of managing the complete life-cycle of these products, from purchase to disposal. The WEEE directive, a draft regulation of which is expected on 14 June, will have the biggest initial impact, and should set strict targets on how users should recycle their equipment and how components can be used.

"Enterprises should think of PC disposal as an integral part of their equipment's life cycle management. The problem will get worse before it gets better. The life cycle of a PC can be managed cost-effectively without too many unpleasant legal surprises and in terms of total cost of ownership, but only if planned from the acquisition onward," advises Gartner.