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Quickly Obsolete Electronics Recycled

On Christmas morning, millions of Americans took the wrappings off spanking new, faster than ever personal computers, fancy fax machines, electronic game stations, cell phones and all manner of high-tech toys. For many people, those were updated versions of equipment they already had and before Christmas dinner hit the table, the old PCs and other devices were unplugged and piled in the corner, fossils of the digital age.

That has created a major problem in the United States. Tons and tons of high-tech junk - some experts say 75 percent of all the high-tech equipment made in the last 10 years - is piling up in landfills, attics and basements across the country.

Until now there has been no efficient way to dispose of most old electronic equipment, but efforts are under way to capture and recycle old computers and other electronic gear. Old computer systems are being updated and resold; others are dismantled and the metals and plastics recycled. Some firms have begun to offer simple ways to upgrade older PCs, and others are working to develop new technology that is easily updated, or taken apart and recycled.

The pace of innovation not only drives the development of technology, but also the increasingly rapid obsolescence of PCs and other electronic gear. Some experts estimate that a new PC purchased this year will be overtaken by better technology within 18 months.

"We are getting better at making machines that last longer and longer, but because technology is moving so fast, they become obsolete long before they wear out," said Nabil Nasar, director of the National Center for Remanufacturing and Resource Recovery at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "This is a serious problem" he said. "There are a lot of products not only creating a problem with pollution, but you're also taking up lots of natural resources."

Computer monitors have lead embedded in the glass to protect users from harmful radiation. Central processing units (CPUs) that contain the processing chip and disk drives have traces of toxic chemicals like mercury and chromium.

While some equipment can be donated to schools and charities, technology is advancing so quickly that even non-profit-organizations are spurning offers of older computers. And the problem is expected to get worse. According to National Safety Council estimate made in June, only 11 percent of the personal computer processors that becamse obsolet in 1998 were recycled and that by 2,002, about 3.4 million more PCs will become obsolete than will be shipped by manufacturers.

A growing number of companies are buying old computer equipment, primarily from businesses that replace technology every year or two, and upgrading the gear, or just refurbishing it and reselling it to people and companies that do not need the latest bells and whistles. Like other companies, Comdisco Inc. takes older computers with 133 megahertz and 166 megahertz processing chips and replaces them with faster processors and then sells those machines into a secondary market, said Michael Ross, and executive vice-president of the Rosemont, Calif.,-based technical services company. While he would not be specific about how much Comdisco makes reselling computers and other office electronics, Ross said that the business amounted to "tens of millions" of dollars.

In January a company called Powerleap, Inc. will start selling motherboards that can be plugged into the back of older computers to bring them up to present standards of processing speed, greater memory, larger hard drives and the latest in audio-visual performance. For less that $400, an old, sluggish antique can become a 500 megahertz machine with 128 megs of RAM.

But recycling computer parts remains difficult because there is not readily available system for people to use if they want to junk the old machines. Part of the problem with recycling most modern electronic equipment is the nearly univeral practice of using modular components that are practically impossible to take apart without damaging the machines. As part of her research into new designs, Stewart is looking into a rectro technology. "I'm thinking a lot about going back to screws," she said.

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