Every week about 300 new computers are plugged into Inland Northwest schools, libraries, businesses and homes.
About half are someone’s first computer. The rest replace personal computers already in use.
What happens to those old PCs?
Some are passed on to other users within the same building. A few are sold or donated to people needing a first or second computer.
But a growing number end up in the trash heap or become part of what’s called closetware - the pile of old PCs, modems and printers stuck in closets, attics and storage rooms.
Less numerous than used tires but more common than old TVs or toasters, discarded computers are becoming a concern in the fastpaced information age.
“This is going to become a big problem,” said Bob Smee, director of Spokane-based National Materials Exchange Network, a computer bulletin board that sells used merchandise, from old PCs to motorcycles.
No other consumer item becomes obsolete as fast as the personal computer, said Smee. Many companies, schools and individuals replace or upgrade their computer systems every 18 to 36 months.
This year, that turnover will produce about 10 million computers discarded, scrapped or put in storage across the United States, according to one estimate.
By 1998, that number will grow to about 17 million unwanted PCs.
There is high turnover in personal computers because the industry is changing so fast, producing massive leaps in power, capability and options, said Rick Hlavka, owner of CyberJunk, a Seattle company that sells used computers.
“Computers from five years ago do what they were built to do. But that’s just a fraction of what a computer built in 1995 does,” Hlavka said.
“No other product changes that much. A car, for example, still just gets us from one place to another.”
Spokane-based Washington Trust Bank just installed 200 new computers, spending about $1 million to convert to a system expected to last about three years.
In the process, it threw away dozens of old machines. It also found new homes for 60 refurbished computers that were 2 to 3 years old and were wanted by area schools and service groups.
Other companies or groups sell old computers at a fraction of their original cost.
Spokane Public Library, which just converted to new computers for patron use, sold 20 old catalog-search terminals to a non-profit library association.
Those terminals, which cost about $2,000 each five years ago, can’t be used as home or office machines. They were sold for $20 each, said library information manager Garv Brakel.
In another example of industry change, the library’s new computers each cost about $500 less than the old machines it got rid of.
Schools and government agencies are required by law to keep, trade in or sell used equipment. They can’t give away or discard it.
Businesses, the No. 1 purchasers of new PCs, don’t face that restriction. They give away computers to schools or to their own workers. Or they simply throw them away, said Yvette Marin, director of the National Cristina Foundation, which finds donated PCs for non-profit groups.
“Businesses throw away more than they should. That is an issue that we should be addressing,” she said.
But some outdated computer equipment ought to be thrown away instead of collecting dust, said Miles Crawford, of Spokane’s PC Services.
“I throw stuff out if it’s of very little value. If I give it to someone, they’ll call back with all sorts of questions,” Crawford said.
“At that point, it’s easier to throw it away.”
Larger companies often salvage valuable metals and parts from their old computers, then toss the rest away.
But the amount of material salvageable is small compared to the total computer - about 7 to 15 percent, depending on the type of machine.
In cities like Seattle, recycling and metal-recovery firms accept whole computers for salvage. In Spokane, recycling companies accept only the PC circuit boards or keyboards.
Computers tossed into the trash in Spokane County end up being burned at the garbage incinerator. Plastic parts burn cleanly. Toxic metals like mercury or lead are either trapped by the plant’s burning filters or end up in ash that is hauled away.
Another niche being filled is technology matchmaker - a group that helps find users for donated computer equipment.
Spokane’s Northwest Nonprofit Resources helped find 10 used PCs for area groups and agencies this past year.
It’s now looking for 286-style personal computers for TINCAN, the regional “freenet” computer network being developed through a federal grant. (The number 286 describes the type of processor in the computer.)
“Those computers may not be good for word processing. But for connecting with a modem to a bulletin board, they’re fine,” said Northwest Nonprofit Resources Director Sandy Gill.
But the number of people or groups willing to accept outdated PCs gets smaller every year, said Hlavka of CyberJunk.
“An older person might still buy a 286 for about $145. But if a kid or teenager comes in and sees (a 286), he’s not interested,” he added.
“Kids won’t touch it. They want a 386 or 486 to play video games or run a CD-ROM.”
MEMO: Tom Sowa writes about technology for The Spokesman-Review. Readers can send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.