A Computer Recycler's Big Job
Feb. 9--David Zimet's New Jersey warehouse is where computers go to die -- or in some cases, to get a new life.
His company, Edison-based Hesstech Inc., recycles electronic waste, refurbishing some machines and carefully dismantling others -- taking pains to ensure that the toxic components are handled safely.
It is a progressive approach in an industry where such precautions are not always taken. In Asia, exported machines are sometimes ripped apart or melted down over open fires by workers not wearing protective equipment.
Now, after seven years of handling computers from Fortune 1000 companies, Zimet's company has landed the largest computer-using client in the world: the federal government.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the job in December to Hesstech and seven other companies that pledged to make sure the dismantled machines -- which will come from EPA and a variety of other agencies -- were handled properly.
"We were worried about what was happening to our PCs," said Oliver Voss, EPA's procurement officer. "Is a computer with an EPA logo on it going to end up in a small Chinese village?"
Federal agencies are encouraged, but not required, to send their old computers to the eight recyclers. The companies are expected to earn an average of $1 million each per year.
The EPA's contracts with the companies do not specifically prohibit the export of electronic materials. That's because most electronics manufacturers are overseas, especially in Asia, and a ban on exports would deprive recyclers of a significant market, Voss said.
Under the new contract, the eight companies must ensure that any products going abroad are carefully separated, handled and tracked to ensure that they end up with an established facility.
The federal government buys 7 percent of the world's computers, disposing of 10,000 machines a week, the EPA estimates. Under the old system, outdated federal computers were auctioned whole to the highest bidder, their destination unknown.
At Hesstech, the 35 workers wear protective goggles, gloves and steel-toed boots as they dismantle computers into large components that are then shipped to secondary recyclers.
Disconnected cables, beige keyboards, and dark-green circuit boards are neatly arranged in piles. Burned-out monitors are stacked in boxes.
Zimet, the company's president and chief executive officer, said he visited the companies that bought his recycled materials and kept a detailed paper trail of where each item ended up.
"We're taking the electronics out of the environment that don't belong there," Zimet, 37, said during a tour of his 50,000-square-foot facility.
But for all the EPA's good intentions, the contracts are not without detractors.
Sheila Davis, an environmentalist with Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, based in San Jose, Calif., said there was no oversight to ensure that the recycled computer parts were handled as hazardous material.
"There's no guarantee of what really happens to it once it gets overseas," Davis said. "It represents a very small step forward, and we have a long way to go."
Another criticism involves how the contracts were awarded. They were designated for small businesses, as part of a special federal program to encourage small-business growth.
But one of the eight companies is far from small: Federal Prison Industries Inc., also known as Unicor -- an $800 million, government-owned corporation that uses prison inmates as workers, including some at New Jersey's Fort Dix.
Federal procurement regulations allow Unicor to bid on small-business contracts, which are otherwise limited to companies with annual revenue of less than $10 million. Hesstech has revenue of $3 million.
Those regulations are the work of two federal "councils" that have representatives from a variety of federal agencies; EPA had no choice but to allow Unicor to bid.
Davis, the clean-computer advocate, warned of the possibility for abuses. Unicor has been dismantling computers for other clients since 1994, and prisoners at California's Atwater facility reportedly were smashing computer monitors with hammers.
Unicor is not required to follow occupational-safety regulations, but does so as a matter of policy, said Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Prisons.
When electronics are exported, the results can sometimes be much worse than breaking them apart with a hammer. Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental group, has recorded Chinese villagers melting circuit boards and computer cables over open flames. Electronics contain toxic metals such as lead and mercury, and exposure can cause neurological problems.
Zimet, the New Jersey computer recycler, shares the concern about improper exporting, and shows the Basel group's video to prospective clients.
More and more corporations are starting to pay attention, wary of liability when their discarded machines end up in the wrong place, he said.
As a result, bigger companies are now willing to pay for proper recycling, which can cost up to $500 a ton for some components, according to the Albany-based International Association of Electronics Recyclers.
It is a big change from a decade ago, when many recyclers accepted old electronics for free.
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© 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.