Where computers go to die ?? and to be reborn

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

What happens after your fancy PC becomes a 50-pound paperweight? A Downtown warehouse holds the answers.

At first glance, the vast warehouse near Downtown's riverfront looks like a computer graveyard.

Stacks of monitors and piles of printers are scattered throughout the expansive recycling center, which has the capacity to hold more than 1,200 tons of electronic materials.

The computers, most only a few years old, are already considered dinosaurs in the high-tech world where new models become obsolete in a matter of months.

But the comparison to a graveyard doesn't fit. Electronic Recovery, Inc. is more like a transplant center -- a place where computers are routed to new homes overseas, stripped down to their circuit boards and refurbished for local customers looking for used bargains. Six warehouse technicians work on the disassembly line.

The 124 12th Ave. S company is among a handful of Twin Cities drop-off recyclers that reuse old computers from companies and schools, diverting them from the waste stream.

Co-owner Vladimir Pisarenko, 58, has been finding new uses for state-of-the-art trash since 1984. The company charges its customers 30 cents a pound to be free of the machines.

Pisarenko started the cyber recycling business after working as an engineer for Buhler, a manufacturing company. He worked on recovering metals from older computer models and decided to start his own venture salvaging electronics.

Pisarenko's son, Michael, has followed in Vladimir's footsteps. The young entrepreneur recently launched a spin-off company with partner Vlady Kazhdan, 20, in the warehouse called C.P. (Cyber Path) Development.

The 20-year-old businessmen sell on e-Bay refurbished laptops and computers collected by the elder Pisarenko.

Since July, the pair has sold about 130 computers online to customers across the country and overseas. To date, they have raked in about $12,000 in revenue.

They sell low-end computers salvaged by the drop-off center and add new features, such as DVD burners, to some models. The computers go for $70 to $350.

Mike Pisarenko has been fixing up computers for years, learning from other technicians at the drop-off centers. About 90 percent of the material collected at the warehouse is recycled and stripped down to its basic parts. For computers that are refurbished, fix-ups can take hours or days.

Other tasks are simpler and take a few minutes, such as slipping in a DVD burner or a CD-ROM.

He sees value in the parts and is perplexed by those who trash the equipment.

"A lot of people will just throw their computers in the trash. They don't know about this sort of thing," he said.

Trashing monitors and TVs will become illegal statewide next July. The e-waste contains Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) that hold hazardous materials such as lead, phosphorous, cadmium, barium and mercury.

The e-scrappers' fledgling business is a point of pride for Vladimir Pisarenko, a Ukrainian immigrant who moved to Minnesota 26 years ago. He beamed as his son and friend showed off their digs -- a small office decked out like a dorm room with large speakers, a fridge and posh desks on the warehouse's edge.

Electronic Recovery processes about 1 million computer parts a month. Most drop-offs come from big companies or schools. Others are cast-offs from companies going through bankruptcy.

The computers run the gamut from new, expensive Dells to 20-year-old Apples with tiny monitors. The warehouse is home to more unusual pieces, too, such as a 1980s-era arcade game and a massive identification-card processor the size of a piano.

The afterlife for computers and printers dropped off at the warehouse varies widely.

Operational computers go to C.P. Development or Midwest Surplus Electronics; the latter is attached to the drop-off center and sells discounted computers, printers and accessories that either came to the drop-off center in good condition or that technicians fixed up.

Some computers are shipped overseas to Eastern European countries or the Philippines, where computer technology lags behind the United States. The drop-off center charges the overseas businesses $2 to $3 for each monitor.

The fee covers the shipping costs, but the business does not make a profit, Vladimir Pisarenko said.

Still, he considers it a good cause: Those companies get a deal on technology, and the computers find new homes and stay out of dumpsters.

Pisarenko insists the computers and parts sent overseas are reused, not sent to dumping grounds. They are either used by businesses or sent to smelters for metal recovery.

"We're reducing pollution and helping those countries," he said.

Electronic Recovery technicians also recover circuit boards from the computers, sending them to another processing center to salvage precious metals, such as gold, platinum and silver found in electronic boards in computers. The circuit boards are crushed and placed in furnaces to melt, where the precious metals can be separated from the copper.

Other metal parts are sent to smelters for recycling.

Electronics Recovery does not process hazardous materials found in the computers, such as lead or mercury. The toxic material is sent to a Canadian processing center.

The average computer monitor has five to seven pounds of lead, which blocks X-rays that could harm users, but ultimately proves hazardous as trash, said Art Dunn, director of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance.

Dunn serves on the Solid Waste Management Coordinating Board, a coalition of Twin Cities metro-area governments coordinating e-waste management.

According to the group's Web site, www.greenguardian.com, Minnesotans own an estimated 700,000 computers. Inevitably, those models will become obsolete, leaving state and local officials searching for ways to improve recycling programs.

Dunn said the group is in talks with computer manufacturers about drafting statewide policy on e-waste management. Some officials involved in the discussions are urging the manufacturers to take the outdated models off customers' hands for free; others want the state to add a fee to computer purchases -- for example, $10 -- that would pay for a state-administered recycling program.

Federal lawmakers are also considering implementing a nationwide program, since most people buy computers from companies headquartered in other states via the Internet.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that a half-million computers now in use will be obsolete by 2007. The nation's landfills have more than 5 million tons of e-waste, and that amount will quadruple this decade, according to EPA estimates.

Locally, Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis, with help from the drop-off centers, are diverting more computers from the waste stream each year, said Amy Roering, a senior planning analyst for Hennepin County's Department of Environmental Services.

In 2003, the county recycled 1,486 tons of electronic trash compared to 11 tons when the program began in 1992, Roering said.

"The volume of electronics has been steadily increasing. We have one of the most successful programs in the county," Roering said.

Next week, Downtown will host a North American e-waste conference at the Hilton Minneapolis, 1001 Marquette Ave., on Oct. 19-20.

The conference, "E-Scrap 2004," will feature seminars trends in electronic recycling. More than 500 industry experts from Canada and the United States are expected to attend. For more information, visit www.e-scrapnews.com.