Computer Recycling Thrives, For Now

Paul Buser, Contributing Writer

With new iMacs in Mudd library and computer labs around campus, where do the old ones go? I’m talking about the the ones that are almost as flat as the new ones, and just as functional. I followed these computers to the Center for Information Technology, where I spoke with Walter Owens, who has been running Oberlin’s computer recycling program for six years.


Rest assured that the old iMacs have not yet left Oberlin’s campus. As Owens explained, these 4-year-old computers are used as “trickle-down” computers for visiting professors or for offices with banks of student workers. All old computers are recycled off campus when “we don’t need [them] anymore. I’d say [they’re] all probably six or seven years old.”


Oberlin College recycles computers off campus with InLine Recycling, an Akron-based electronics recycler. Owens chose them for their close proximity to Oberlin, Ohio EPA endorsement and free pickup. InLine also assures us that none of their recycled components leave the United States.


However, there’s no way to ensure that all of Oberlin’s recycled electronics stay within the United States. The computer recycling supply chain is large and complex. InLine, a relatively small operation, subcontracts with 15 companies, each specializing in a different component. Owens acknowledges this, adding, “But you do the best you can do.”


Students and faculty used to be able to purchase used computers from the Technology Store instead of having them picked up by a recycler: “We’d do it once a year and sell all the old computers for like $100 or something. But then [technical] support became the issue.” Even with the expectation that the used computers were unsupported, users would “come back and say ‘I cannot sync my iPod or iPhone,’ and we [would] have to tell them that they can’t.” The fast-changing pace of software like iTunes or Flash makes it near-impossible to update these computers for even basic tasks like web browsing. As a result of these difficulties, the Technology Store no longer sells used computers.


CIT also used to have a “junk pile” similar to the Free Store, but for electronics, from which students and faculty could scavenge usable components. Unfortunately, this practice died out as well, because the pile was difficult to maintain and often created a mess for library custodians, CIT employees and students. The recycling pile is now locked away in a secure part of the CIT offices.


The cost of legal recycling of electronics is on the rise. One reason for this cost increase is the decrease in lifespan of computers. Technology changes fast, and part of this change is the increasing rate of obsolescence of older computers. For example, Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 7, runs only on devices from the past three years.


Not only do current devices not last as long, but they are less valuable for recyclers. As Don Cain, the head of InLine Recycling, explained, “The old computers have a lot more gold in them … Laptops and iPads and notepads and notebooks — there’s nothing there of any value.” Cain said he expects many recyclers to begin charging for pickup in the near future, when the value of the reclaimed material falls below the costs of certification, shipping and processing. Oberlin College currently recycles its computers and electronics equipment for free. If recycling becomes costly, it will be interesting to see if our policy changes.

So to answer my question, the iMacs stay here, at least for a short while, before they go… nowhere, really. They get disassembled and smelted and recycled and possibly dumped into a landfill, but they don’t go away. The stuff they’re made of stays with us, for better or for worse, until we can figure out how to use less of it.