Thursday, September 19, 2002

Getting rid of old computers gets easier

Published in the Current

Until recently, there was no way for businesses and schools in Southern Maine to get rid of old computers. A new program through Ruth’s Reusable Resources in Scarborough is solving that problem. For a fee, Ruth’s will store old computers and arrange for their proper disposal after the end of their useful lives.

Gary Lanoie, technology coordinator for Cape Elizabeth schools, said he has been storing old computers in closets for years. Computers that are beyond repair or are so old as to no longer be useful in classrooms now occupy “one big storage closet per school,” Lanoie said.

Because of heavy metals used in computer parts, they are considered hazardous materials and cannot be thrown out with regular garbage.

“We can’t just be throwing this stuff in landfills,” Lanoie said. With the new program through Ruth’s though, “we are starting to get rid of them.”

Ruth’s is a non-profit clearinghouse known for giving donated items, which can be used in the classroom, to area schools. School districts pay a fee to belong, and, in return, their staff can visit and pick up items they need, ranging from three-hole binders to reams of paper.

In a role reversal, of sorts, now schools and businesses can pay Ruth’s to get rid of what they don’t want, recycling the oldest computers in an environmentally safe way.

A recycling company in the Midwest will pick up large loads of computers, but won’t pick up anything less than an 18-wheeler full of old equipment. That is a lot for a business or school district to generate alone.

Becoming the middleman
Ruth’s has stepped in to play the role of consolidator. Project coordinator Chris Slader, an alternative learning teacher for primary grades in Westbrook, volunteers his time to handle computer donations.

Slader will accept working computers with processor speeds faster than 200 megahertz at no charge, as they can still be useful to schools.

Central Maine Power has donated a number of 400 megahertz machines that could last four or five years in a school. Those are available at no charge to employees of school districts that are members of Ruth’s network.

“It works out better for us,” said CMP community relations specialist John Carroll. Previously, the company donated computers on an individual basis to various non-profits.

That was labor-intensive, Carroll said, and didn’t always result in the agencies getting the best computers for their purposes.

The arrangement with Ruth’s, Carroll said, is more efficient and assures CMP that its computers are being used until the end of their usable lives.

Old computers, though, cost money on their way out the door. Ruth’s charges $15 for a monitor, $3 for a central processing unit (including the hard drive and CD drive), $7 for a printer and $2 for a keyboard or mouse. The money pays for the fees for the recycling company to pick up the equipment, as well as the rental of a storage trailer outside the Ruth’s space at the Bessey School. There is also a small surcharge Ruth’s uses to pay for disposal of old computers that Ruth’s already has on hand and needs to get rid of, Slader said.

When computers come in, Slader sorts them and puts the old ones in the trailer. In his spare time, he will stack them on shipping pallets and wrap them with clear plastic film.

When the trailer is full, he will call to have it taken away.

They are taken to a furnace, he said, where the parts are melted down and reused. Slader said the equipment is not incinerated but is recycled.

Clearing the decks
There are other ways to get rid of computers, but none of them are as certain to be environmentally sound.

Capt. Mark Unruh of the Salvation Army in Portland said he receives donations of computers regularly. Working ones are sold in the organization’s stores for $25 to $50. When he gets a large number of non-working computers, Unruh puts them in a large box and sells the whole box for about $25 in the store on Warren Avenue in Portland.

That way, he said, he gets rid of the old computers as well as the newer ones. He said he has no way of knowing what happens to the computers after they leave his store.

Scarborough’s technology coordinator, Stephen Tewhey, said the district gives many of its oldest computers to non-profits and day care centers in town. They have also used state programs and private recyclers to handle defunct computers.

Tewhey said the town’s yard sale last year was a good way to get rid of equipment the schools did not need any more. He expects to use the program at Ruth’s as well.

In Cape, the money spent so far on recycling some equipment came out of other budget savings, Lanoie said. But he expects to ask for recycling money in the next budget cycle.

“It’s probably going to be a standard budget item,” Lanoie said.

He said laptops issued to students through the state’s laptop initiative belong to the state. If they break or need to be disposed of, he would send them to the state or to Apple, meaning the town would not have to pay to dispose of those machines.

Slader said the recycling program may expand to individuals in the near future. Businesses should call Ruth’s at 883-8407 to make an appointment to drop off old computers.