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Computers Go to Rehab, Then Back to Work

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Temple University's Computer Recycling Center

Temple University's Computer Recycling Center has kept 376 tons of e-waste from computers and monitors from going into landfills since 2003.

Credit: Joseph Labolito / Temple University

Paper, plastic, and glass each has its place when the time comes to recycle. But what about a computer? What about thousands of computers each year? That was the dilemma facing Temple University's Computer Services in 2003 when many computers were being dumped in the trash to avoid removal charges from the facilities department. With about 14,000 computers in operation at any given time, this was not only wasteful but also harmful to the environment, says Tim O'Rourke, Chief Information Officer and vice president of computer and financial services.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the United States. It's also very toxic, containing such chemicals as lead, mercury and cadmium, which can reach humans and the environment via contaminated air and groundwater, when computer parts end up in landfills.

Today it's a much different story at Temple thanks to the Computer Recycling Center, a well-oiled operation that has recycled and rehabbed more than 27,000 computers, monitors, printers and scanners since its inception in 2003. In recognition of the CRC's groundbreaking work and commitment to sustainability, the EPA Mid-Atlantic Region has selected the Computer Recycling Center to receive one of the 2009 Environmental Achievement Awards on Wednesday (Sept. 16).

"Temple is highly sensitive to its impact on the environment," says President Ann Weaver Hart. "The CRC is a perfect example of the power of creative solutions in our quest to become a leader in urban sustainability."

The CRC was borne out of a policy developed by O'Rourke and his team that requires anyone who buys a computer through the university to also pay a $50 recycling fee at the time of purchase. This money funds the CRC, which is now run by two full-time employees, director Jonathan Latko and his assistant Fady Isleem, and six Temple students. The mission is two-fold: keep the computers out of the landfills and keep the data secure.

Latko explains that when a computer arrives at the CRC it's immediately triaged in a highly secured room. All data is wiped completely clean from the hard drives by one of three methods: one uses hardware, one uses software, and the last resort uses a crusher that actually bends the hard drive in half.

From there, the computer is analyzed and tested. Can it be refurbished and reused? If so, the rehabbed machine is either sold to staff and students for $50 or donated to a community organization. If not, it gets recycled by a firm that's certified by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection to properly dispose of computer parts.

Since 2003, just in computers and monitors alone, the CRC has kept 376 tons of e-waste from going into landfills. More than 27,000 computers, monitors, printers and scanners have been collected, from which more than 4,300 computers were recycled; 4,800 computers were refurbished and reused; and 1,200 computers were donated to non-profit community organizations.

Other universities, the majority of whom entirely outsource computer recycling and rehabilitation, marvel at what the CRC has accomplished. Many have visited Temple to observe the CRC and learn more about how it works. It's believed that Temple is the only university that's been able to take computer recycling as far as it has. O'Rourke estimates that the operation has saved nearly $1 million in new computer purchases.

One of the most rewarding aspects of their work, say Latko and O'Rourke, is being able to give community members access to technology that they didn't have before. The 1,200 donated machines have gone to churches, non-profit organizations, and community groups like the Norris Homes, which are located adjacent to Temple's Main campus in Philadelphia, PA.

"Just because you might not want a computer anymore doesn't mean someone else can't make good use out of it. And we have," says Norris Homes resident, Lisa M. Gass. "The adults visit Web sites, the kids use the computers to do homework and research. We really appreciate having this computer lab."

"Technology is everywhere and many of us take it for granted," says O'Rourke. "But many non-profit groups in our community can't afford the technology they need. Donating our rehabbed computers is the socially responsible thing to do."


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