COMPUTERS are a lot like fashion: Nobody wants yesterday's models. And in the computer industry at least, the leftovers are piling up at an alarming rate.
By 2005, more personal computers (PCs) will be in landfills than in operation, according to projections from a two-year-old study by students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The PCs would fill a hole an acre wide and 3.5 miles deep. That is not counting bulkier mainframe and mini-computers.
Can anything be done? The United States is taking a few promising stabs at recyclable computers. But so far, Germany has the lead. This year, the German government is expected to pass legislation requiring manufacturers to take back their durable and sophisticated consumer goods. By one estimate, computers represent nearly 8 percent of the 1.5 million metric tons of electrical and electronic scrap that the nation will have to reprocess each year.
``We can't be involved in landfill,'' says Peter Burgdorf, managing director of Siemens Nixdorf's remarketing and recycling center in Paderborn, Germany. ``[Customers] are asking: If I buy a new system, what can I do with my old one?''
The company's recycling effort kicked into high gear in 1992. Last year, it took back 3,000 metric tons of computer machinery - nearly 20 percent of the tonnage it sold five years earlier. This year, Mr. Burgdorf expects to take in 25 percent.
So far, the effort is not cost-effective. Siemens spends more money to refurbish and dismantle machines than it makes reusing and reselling old parts, scrap metal, and plastics. The Paderborn center breaks even by charging customers to bring back their machines: about $86 for a PC; more than $2,300 for a mainframe.
Siemens can refurbish and resell nearly one in five of the machines it gets back, either as complete systems or components. The company tries to recycle as much of the rest as possible. Two-thirds of the equipment is metal, which can be separated and sold as scrap. The biggest problem is the 12 percent of the computer that is plastic. ``It is not labeled,'' Burgdorf says. ``We do not know what kinds of plastics we used years ago.'' So the company is forced to find low-tech uses for its high-grade plastics.
The biggest benefit of the recycling is not so much the reuse of old materials but the transformation in the way new computers are built. ``It changes the concept of corporate life-cycle,'' says Rand Wilson, a board member of the Jobs and Environment Campaign, a public-interest initiative in Boston. ``If Compaq knew that every computer they made would end up on their doorstep, it would change their design.'' Siemens, for example, has cut down on the number of plastics it uses; it gives priority to those that can be easily recycled; and it labels all large plastic parts, making reprocessing easier.
US computer companies have some catching up to do if they want to move toward recyclable computers. ``My experience is that they're trying to get ready,'' says Richard Luthy, head of Carnegie Mellon's civil-engineering department. A year ago, Dr. Luthy received a $1.9 million grant from IBM to study design methods to simplify recycling and reuse.
``There have been some good initiatives made,'' adds Steven Anzovin, author of a 1993 book, ``The Green PC: Making Choices that Make a Difference.'' Groups all around the US have started computer exchanges, where users can buy and sell used equipment. Other groups are convincing businesses and individuals to donate computers for developing nations. Some US companies have sprung up to recycle and resell used computer components. ``It's a tremendous market,'' says Gwen Carlson, spokeswoman for Aurora Electronics Inc. in Irvine, Calif.
Still, it is not clear that, short of legislation, American computer companies are ready to build recyclable computers. ``That's an issue that comes and goes over the years,'' says Thomas Temin, editor in chief of Government Computer News. ``To go that way is costly.''
For example, using the assumptions of the Carnegie-Mellon study, it would cost $1.50 to landfill each PC. Even counting hazardous-waste costs, the total would be far less than the $86 Siemens charges to recycle a PC.
Many environmentalists say consumers will pay the higher price for a recyclable machine. But Burgdorf worries that they will not unless other countries pass laws similar to Germany's. ``Not only we in Germany must do these things,'' he says. ``It must be a rule worldwide.''