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Hewlett-Packard E-Cyclers Are Gold Miners Of The Internet-Age

An Hewlett-Packard (HP) recycling worker moves a huge box of metal separated by the computer recycling shredder machine, at the HP Recycling Center in Roseville, California, 13 June 2007. Materials such as batteries and LCD screens are first removed by hand before they can be put into the shredder, which crushes the items and separates the plastic and the different kinds of metals for various recycling uses. HP calls the process "product minimization." Photo courtesy AFP.
by Zachary Slobig
Roseville (AFP) California, June 15, 2007
In a vast warehouse in a scorching valley near California's capital, Hewlett-Packard workers mine for Internet-age gold while diverting toxic electronic waste from landfills. The company is ramping up operations in the sleepy California town of Roseville, where its shredders and chippers rip up everything from mobile telephones to copy machines and salvage usable scraps.

Yellowed newspaper clippings of "e-waste" dump sites in rural China are tacked to walls of a workshop where HP's goal is to keep discarded technological devices and their toxic components out of the ground.

"It's a lot like old fashioned gold mining," HP employee Tatyana Kjellberg told AFP at the facility Wednesday.

A football field sized loading dock is stacked high with computer monitors, printers, and servers collected in just one day.

Those discards of Internet-age life await deconstruction as conveyor belts, rotating blades, and magnets crush and sift endless streams of junk flowing into huge plastic bins bound for a smelter.

HP calls the process "product minimization."

Computer components arrive on the dock and are dismantled by hand.

The pieces are sent through a series of machines that break them down incrementally until all that remains are mounds of plastic, steel, and aluminum in two-centimeter chunks.

The US computer maker is ramping up a recycling effort it began with a parts return program in 1987.

"We'd take the usable parts out of products and send them on for reuse, but then we were left with all these carcasses," HP recycling operations manager Ken Turner told AFP.

"There was plenty of stuff we just didn't know what to do with."

The company will accept any electronic device made by any manufacturer.

A collection of vintage technology including a Sony Mega Watchman; a mobile phone the size of an orthopedic shoe, and an early Commodore personal computer line a counter.

An obsolete IBM ThinkPad bearing a sticker "Roberto's T30" awaits reincarnation at the top of a heap of abandoned machines.

HP in 2006 globally recycled 74 million kilograms of e-waste, a mass equivalent to 600 jumbo jets. The Roseville plant alone accounts for nearly two million kilograms every month.

"Our recycling program is light years ahead of most people," Turner said. "But then we also sell a lot more machines than other people."

HP began in 1938 as a garage workshop in what is now Silicon Valley. The company grew to selling a cornucopia of electronic devices worldwide and reported nearly 92 billion dollars in revenue in 2006.

As technology increasingly pervades cultures worldwide, and product lifecycles shorten, there is growing urgency for intensive e-cycling operations, according to environmental groups.

The United State's is the world's e-waste giant, responsible for nearly two billion kilograms of technology trash annually, a 300 percent increase in the past decade.

Television sets account for 40 percent of US e-waste by weight, followed by computer monitors, cell phones, and then desktop and laptop computers, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Microsoft's launch of its new Windows Vista operating system in January is expected to trigger a flood of e-waste worldwide as people upgrade to more sophisticated machines.

The bulk of the technology trash lands in developing nations such as China, according to Greenpeace.

In Roseville, workers jimmy transistors and precious metals from circuit boards while Turner surveys his plant.

"If it's too loud, you're too old," reads a sticker on the back of his blue hard hat. Behind him a machine thumps as thought it were a gigantic clothes washer with a cinderblock inside.

Nearby, Mike Butts, a worker in the plant for eight years, strips down a bulky computer monitor.

"It's good work, and this is what I do best," said Butts. "It's better than all this going in a landfill."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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