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Where have the old computers gone?
Recycling computers helps keep toxins out of landfills

LAWRENCEVILLE - Where do old computers go when they are no longer wanted?

After upgrading to faster, more compact models with extra bells and whistles, many businesses and individuals don't know how to get rid of their old machines, which contain toxic metals and are loaded with personal information.

As a result, discarded computers pile up in people's attics and home offices. Some businesses that upgrade systems every few years sacrifice valuable space to store relatively new computers, quickly made obsolete by newer models.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Web site, in 2005, used or unwanted electronics amounted to approximately 1.9 to 2.2 million tons. Of that, about 1.5 to 1.9 million tons were primarily discarded in landfills, and only 345,000 to 379,000 tons were recycled.

Metro Atlanta offers a number of donation and recycling options for clearing homes or businesses of unwanted computers without filling landfills or risking identity theft.

Why not leave a computer out with the trash?

Computers and monitors hold poisons, including lead and mercury, that could leak into the soil, said Roy Edwards, spokesman for the Pollution Prevention Assistance Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Nevertheless, they can be disposed of in Georgia landfills, although there are options for environmentally conscious businesses and individuals, said Connie Wiggins, director of Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful.

"There are several locations around metro Atlanta that accept computers from the general public," Wiggins said. "If someone dumps a computer on the road or a vacant lot, it is considered illegal dumping. If someone were found guilty by a judge, this would be a misdemeanor and someone could be fined up to $1,000."

When workers with Lawrenceville-based Haul Masters find a computer in a load of trash, they take it to a recycling center, rather than expose a landfill to its toxicity, said Mary Claire Louis, spokeswoman.

Old computers contain valuable personal and business information

Denean Heumaneus said she just closes the door on her husband's Lawrenceville home office, which is full of working, but relatively medieval computers.

Many individuals and businesses keep their computers to avoid having their personal information lifted, adding to storage problems.

"Some companies have hundreds and hundreds stored on site because they are nervous about the information they hold," Edwards said.

The information can be wiped clean by formatting the C drive or drilling a hole through the hard drive, said Cyrous Naddaf, owner of

E-Recycle USA in Norcross.

Edwards recommends shredding the hard drive.

Aside from personal information, computers more than 10 years old have a higher susceptibility to the new viruses, and repair parts are difficult or impossible to find, said Bill Joyner, senior account manager of New Jersey-based Anything IT.

Old computers create new business opportunity

A pile of obsolete computers has grown for years in Tony Stewart's Lawrenceville home.

"I have an attic full of them," Stewart said. "They're 10 years old or more. I don't know where you would take them."

Edwards estimates that there are enough computers and televisions in Georgia to produce about 324 tons of waste when those items become obsolete. But that's not all bad news. The need to dispose of unwanted computers has created new business ventures that benefit workers in both the U.S. and third-world countries.

Most recyclers ship newer, working computers to retailers that sell them in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Edwards said.

In addition to toxic metals, computers also contain bits of copper, gold and platinum, Naddaf said. Workers at E-Recycle USA disassemble old or non-working computers and send the parts to Asia and the Middle East where low-wage workers strip the metals and shred them for resale, Naddaf said.

Although that process brings income to overseas workers, it also creates pollution in those regions, Edwards said.

"The plastic around the wires must be melted and the emissions from melting that wiring are creating a toxic problem," he said.

Nonprofit organizations distribute donated computers to needy individuals

Another option is to donate that computer to a nonprofit agency that distributes them to people who might otherwise do without one.

Scientific Atlanta and Given Imaging in Duluth both donated unwanted computers to Lithonia-based Computers for Youth that supplies second-hand computers to middle school children in low-income homes.

"We refurbish them and load them with educational software," said Jeanne Artime, program manager. "The family must participate in a half-day Saturday workshop to take it home."

The program locates students through schools that have at least 75 percent of their students on a free lunch program. About 700 computers have been given to metro Atlanta middle school students since May, she said. Artime is working to establish programs at Lilburn, Louise Radloff and Summerour middle schools in Gwinnett, she said.

Amber Harlow of Lawrenceville recently gave an old computer to Goodwill.

"It was 10 or 13 years old," she said. "I put all the information on a floppy and erased it from the computer."

There's no end in sight to the technological advances that create mounds of unwanted equipment. Businesses and individuals can expect another new computer version around 2011, an upgrade to Microsoft's new Vista operating program, Joyner said.

Meanwhile, business is booming at E-Recycle USA. Trucks routinely deliver about 1,300 computers in one load to its warehouse, where computer parts are stacked floor to ceiling.

"Every time I look at them I want to hang myself," he said.

SideBar: Where To Go

Listed below are area businesses where you can recycle or donate your old computer. For more information, visit the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Web site at www.epa.gov/epaoswer/hazwaste/recycle/ecycling/donate.htm.

Keep Barrow Beautiful Great American Clean-up - Takes all computers, electronics, phones and batteries

233 E. Broad St., Winder

8 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 18 and 8 a.m. to noon April 19

Atlanta Light Bulbs

2109 Mountain Industrial Blvd., Tucker

770-491-3145

$25 charge

E-Recycle USA

6250 McDonough Drive. Suite. B, Norcross

770-416-1628

No charge

Metro Laser

4679 Hugh Howell Road Suite F, Tucker

770-938-1500

Takes printers and toner cartridges for recycling at no charge.

5R Processors

2445 S. Stone Mountain Lithonia Road, Lithonia

770-482-1744

MicroSeconds

6427 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs

404-252-7221

$10 charge for monitors, but it doesn't take computers more than 6 years old.

Or donate that old computer:

Touch the Future dba ReBoot

4508 Bibb Blvd., Suite B-10, Tucker

770-934-8432

ReBoot staff repair donated computers and distribute them to disabled people.

$10 disposal fee for non-working computers, monitors and printers.

Computers For Youth

3040 Miller Road, Lithonia

770-987-8212

Distributes computers to low-income middle school students.

The Web sites of both Dell and Apple offer recycling programs. Visit their Web sites for more information. www.dell.com

http://www.apple.com/environment/recycling/