Filling potholes with castoff computers

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Imagine taking some of the more tired vehicles off the information highway and using them to patch ... real highways.

That's the work of Conigliaro Industries Inc., a Framingham, Mass., firm that aims to profit by dealing with the high-tech detritus consumers leave behind as they upgrade.

The company grinds up the plastic casings of old computers, printers, and scanners, among dozens of other products, and combines it with asphalt and sand - creating a substance that can be used to patch potholes. Conigliaro takes in more than 25,000 pounds of plastics from electronics equipment a day - much of it from area businesses. The firm has the capacity to recycle more than 6 million pounds a year.

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"At first, everyone thought it was kind of a kooky product. But it has worked so well, and that's been really rewarding," says Greg Conigliaro, founder and president.

Mr. Conigliaro cites a recent estimate by Carnegie Mellon University that by 2005, a total of 150 million computers will have been discarded nationwide.

His father, Anthony, a retired engineer, came up with the idea for "Cold Patch" in 1999. At that time, Greg says, more and more companies nationwide were starting to refurbish the electrical components of high-tech devices into items such as answering machines and video games. "But not many firms knew what to do with the plastic housing," about 18 pounds per computer, he says.

Attempts to melt down electronic plastics never worked well, because the varying materials melt at different temperatures.

So Anthony came up with another method of breaking it down.

In a cavernous old warehouse, a conveyor belt carries the plastic housings into a shredder. The shredded bits, snaked through a metal tube, are dumped into the sand/asphalt mix. The result: a pliable substance that can be molded to fit a pothole.

It's lighter and - the company claims - just as durable as standard pothole filler. And its water - not solvent - base is environmentally friendlier than its competitors.

Conigliaro sells Cold Patch in 3.5-gallon buckets, 55-gallon drums, or by the truckload to states, municipalities, and hardware stores around the Northeast. So far he has sold 25,000 buckets of the asphaltlike mixture. Small buckets retail for $9.95. The company also markets a line of plastic blocks designed for building storage bins. "We earn enough to operate, but it's also rewarding at the end of the day to realize how much we've recycled," says Conigliaro.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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