During the holiday season, countless Americans will be unwrapping brand-new computers, leaving the old ones to gather dust — or worse, head to the garbage dump.

But for those conscious of the world’s growing e-waste problem, Dell offers an alternative: a free take-back program for your aging PC.

Call it end-of-life care for your computer. Depending on its condition, Dell will refurbish your old laptop or desktop, recycle it, break it down for parts, or discard it for you, all while avoiding landfills or dumps in developing countries.

“We started to realize that from an environmental perspective … there wasn’t, let’s say, five years ago, a real good answer to ‘What can I do with this when I’m finished with it?’” said Mike Watson, senior manager of Dell Global Recycling Services. “A lot of times, they would just throw it in the waste bin, which ends up in oh-so-many bad places for electronics.”

Indeed, discarded television sets, computers, and cell phones added up to 2.5 million tons of “electronic waste” in 2007, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Only about 18 percent of the items were recycled. As far as computers go, it is estimated that 40 million become obsolete each year.

Increasingly, companies like Dell are stepping into the marketplace to recycle aging electronics on behalf of their clients.

Under Dell’s program, owners of Dell machines — or individuals buying a Dell computer — are eligible for the service. Customers can have a local Dell partner pick up the computer directly from their homes. (International clients are given packing instructions.)

For the past five years, Dell and Goodwill Industries have partnered to recycle old computers. Through the ReConnect Partnership, computer owners can drop off their machines at designated Goodwill locations that work with Dell to refurbish, recycle or dispose of the computer. Dell customers also can drop off their old computers at Staples for recycling.

“The more we can touch our product, the better the product disposition is,” said Watson. “We’re wildly committed,” he said about disposing of electronics properly. “Its part of our lifecycle commitment from an environmental perspective.”

To date, Dell has recycled or discarded scores of computers and computer parts. Since 2004, the company has collected 275 million pounds of material from the take-back program and a similar (fee-based) program for commercial clients. It is now on track to meet a new goal of collecting one billion pounds by 2014.

Working with environmental partners — which are audited regularly to ensure adherence to ethical and environmental standards — Dell tracks and documents each computer from pick-up to disassembly and beyond.

A key commitment is making sure that old computers do not end up polluting developing countries. According to Watson, more than 85 percent of materials can be reused on some level. “Reuse is our primary concern,” he said, adding that Dell “reuses as much of the material as possible for resource conservation.”

If that isn’t feasible, he said, computers are broken down into memory chips, hard drives and circuit boards. In some case, those parts are further stripped away in order to reuse the plastic and glass as “feed stock,” or raw material for manufacturing new computers. “When all of those fail, the unit goes into a true disposition or end-of-life stream,” said Watson. “You can’t run a cleaning process on it in a developing country. That would generate waste in that developing country,” he said. 

Currently, few regulations are on the books when it comes to computer disposal. Several years ago, the European Union passed regulations governing the disposal of electronics. In the United States and Canada, some emerging legislation focuses on manufacturers and state-level recycling or disposal programs.

Along with Dell, companies such as Samsung and Best Buy have their own take-back programs, and the EPA publishes information on its Web site to help consumers identify places to recycle or donated their old electronics.

“We believe that if we make it as convenient as we possibly can,” Watson said, “There will be more opportunities to dispose of it right than to dispose of it wrong.”

MNN homepage photo: JulienGrondin/iStockPhoto

See also:

Computer recycling made easy