Dev

Oct. 21, 2009 11:00 am

Shop Talk: Temple University’s Computer Recycling Center

When the Computer Recycling Center at Temple University first launched in 2003, a cleaner environment wasn’t its only priority. It was developed to address an internal problem. “In order for people to prevent having to pay Facilities to come pick up [old computers], they were just taking computers and throwing them in the dumpster,” Chief […]

Temple University Computer Recycling Center Assistant Director Jonathon Latko stands in the 5,000 square foot recycling center located in the university's Tech Center.

When the Computer Recycling Center at Temple University first launched in 2003, a cleaner environment wasn’t its only priority. It was developed to address an internal problem.

“In order for people to prevent having to pay Facilities to come pick up [old computers], they were just taking computers and throwing them in the dumpster,” Chief Information Officer Tim O’Rourke said in an interview with Technically Philly Tuesday. [Full Disclosure: TP’s founders are Temple alumni.]

Yet just last month, the innovative program was awarded a Mid-Atlantic Environmental Achievement Award by the Environmental Protection Agency, an honor picked from a pool of more than 60 candidates, Computer Recycling Center Assistant Director Jonathan Latko says.

Certainly, electronic waste has become a growing global problem, as Western nations ship containers filled with antiquated computer parts to developing nations like Ghana, an issue we’ve covered several times in recent months.

But it’s the computers that are saved that drives this story.

Twenty-seven thousand computers have been through the center, eventually placed back in university departments, sold to students, staff and faculty or given as donations to local community organizations.

Latko says that 2,000 computers have been refurbished and placed back in Temple’s schools and offices. At an estimated $500 per new computer, he says that the recycling center has saved about $1 million. Additionally, 4,000 computers have been recycled to university individuals or to the community, at a cost of $50 for each system�the price of the recycling process alone.

It’s that fee that makes the program self-sustaining.

“The best way I can describe the process is that it’s Social Security for computers. Every time you buy something new, you pay a $50 fee for end of life,” he says. “And that funds our operation.”

The business model is borrowed from other industries that forward-pay for recycling, like tires, oil changes and mattresses. No one had created a program for electronics like Temple has set up, Latko says.

When a faculty member or department has electronics that have reached their limit�about every four years for computer systems�the hardware is entered into an online database, a pick-up is scheduled, and it is brought into the center.

Computers are diagnosed and separated in the warehouse. Some are rebuilt with old parts while others are checked for donor hardware. More yet are stripped down to individual commodities.

The commodities are separated and metal, plastic, circuit boards and wires are placed in separate containers for an EPA-certified de-manufacturing center to eek out every last dollar and cent from the old equipment. Every step of the recycling process is placed under Latko’s scrutinizing microscope, and better for it.

Of course, of serious concern to the university in building the program was making sure that data was clean. Erased, gone.

A separate corner of the warehouse, surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling cage, houses equipment to perform every last step of completely formatting data. Hard-drives are wiped several times, or a software system helps the drives “self-destruct.” If data still isn’t clean, the circuit boards are physically destroyed with a custom device similar to a drill.

But O’Rourke says just as much innovation comes from the Recycling Center’s business model.

“When you buy a $1,500 computer, you don’t care about another $50. If I can just take them down to the dumpster and throw them away for free, that’s what I’m going to do,” O’Rourke says.

“The Recycling Center works because we set up a good business model. It gave people the financial incentive to do the right thing,”

Watch Latko demonstrate the wiping process in the video below.
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Every Wednesday,�Shop Talk shows you what goes into a tech product, organization or business in the Philadelphia region. See others�here.

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Brian James Kirk

Brian James Kirk is a cofounder of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Kirk was Web Editor of PlanPhilly, an independent online news resource covering planning and development issues in Philadelphia, and a freelance writer and designer. He resides in South Philadelphia.

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