RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Simone Silva da Silveira, the head of an NGO focused on recycling paper and cooking oil in the city of Imbé, on the coast of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, wanted to donate her computer monitors and central processing units (CPUs).
But Silveira, 37, doesn’t know where she can make the donation.
Silveira asked for guidance by emailing the website Web-Resol, a Rio de Janeiro-based NGO committed to disseminating information about the environment and sanitation.
But Web-Resol’s President, José Henrique Penido Monteiro, a mechanical engineer who has 34 years’ experience working in the environmental field, couldn’t provide an answer. He had no idea where Silveira could drop off her unwanted computer equipment.
“I think it’s rare that a person will send an e-mail to find out how not to harm the environment with the disposal of this type of waste,” Monteiro says.
Public initiatives aimed at the recycling of electronic equipment practically are nonexistent in Brazil. And manufacturers have yet to completely adhere to the country’s new National Solid Waste Policy (PNRS), which regulates the disposal of residues.
After 18 years of debate in the Brazilian Congress, the PNRS passed into law on Aug. 2, 2010. It establishes shared responsibilities for manufacturers, importers, distributors, vendors, consumers and public sanitation services, from the making of a product to its purchase and disposal.
“It’s a principle based on making the polluter pay,” Monteiro says. “Those who pollute or contribute to pollution are responsible for its mitigation. The consumer should be able to return the product so that the manufacturer can dispose of it correctly.”
Computer manufacturers consider recycling – the complete dismantling of equipment and reuse of practically all of the components – to be expensive and economically nonviable, Monteiro says. As a result, it is easier to find institutions that will use a computer’s functioning components in other machines.
“Manufacturers might even accept the return of a used product, but they would probably just throw it in the garbage,” he says. “Consumers also are uninterested in appropriately disposing of their equipment and choose to throw it out with the regular trash.”
Dell is a pioneer
Dell Computers is part of a group of environmentally responsible companies, Monteiro says.
The computer manufacturer has a link on its website so its customers know how to properly discard its products nationwide.
The company was a pioneer in introducing free computer recycling programs throughout the country, as it forged partnerships with recycling companies to carry out the process, Dell officials said.
The PNRS provides penalties for manufacturers that don’t act in an environmentally responsible manner, but enforcement is very difficult, Monteiro says.
The improper disposal of computers leads to groundwater pollution and contamination due to the heavy metals present in the components, Monteiro says. It is also a waste of material resources, since nothing is reused.
The main reason why the lack of recycling of computers hasn’t become a major problem is that the country is still in the midst of digital integration, Monteiro says.
Out of 58.6 million Brazilian homes estimated in 2009, 34.69% had at least one computer, according to Home Based National Survey (PNAD 2009) by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
“Here it takes longer for the product to be thrown away,” he says. “This means that if I frequently upgrade my equipment, it is because I like always to have the latest technology. I’ll give my old machine to someone else, who then passes it along to someone else, who does the same, until the machine finally stops working. At that point, it is discarded.”
But computer sales are increasing in Brazil. In the third quarter of 2010, 3.7 million computers were sold – a 19% increase compared to the same period in 2009, according to consulting firm IDC Brasil.
USP has a computer disposal and recycling center
In December 2009, the University of São Paulo (USP) created Brazil’s first public computer recycling center. The USP Center for the Disposal and Reuse of Information Technology Waste (CEDIR) dismantles and sorts all of the components and sends them to companies that specialize in recycled electronics.
After three months exclusively serving USP campuses and São Paulo state government offices, CEDIR opened to the public on April 1, 2010.
“The center was designed to receive five tons per month, and we are currently receiving between 10 and 12 tons,” says Tereza Cristina Carvalho, coordinator of the CEDIR. “We’ve reached the limit of our capacity.”
The launch of the CEDIR initiative, which cost R$180,000 (US$107,500), was carried out in partnership with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The initiative began when Carvalho and her colleagues at USP tried to sell five tons of outdated computers to a recycling company. The idea was to sell the old equipment in order to buy new computers.
“They offered us R$1,000 (US$600) for everything,” she says. “We thought the price was ridiculously low, so we started to investigate why that was the case. It turned out that the company accepting the equipment would remove only the parts they knew how to recycle. The rest either would be sent to a landfill, or someone else would be paid to recycle it.”
In order to guarantee the initiative’s economic viability, computer companies should create a consortium for the purchase of machinery, since recycling machines are designed to handle volumes measured in tons, Carvalho says.
A group of tire manufacturers adopted a similar initiative in 2007, with the founding of Reciclanip, responsible for the collection, transport and disposal of discarded tires that cannot be reutilized.
For 10 years, the NGO Comitê pela Democratização da Informática (CDI) is the only organization in Rio de Janeiro that has accepted computers for reutilization.
In general, for every four computers that are donated, CDI is able to build one new machine, says José Edimilson Canaes, the general coordinator for the NGO in Rio de Janeiro.
Equipment made from reutilized components is being used in all of CDI’s 78 training centers in Rio de Janeiro, which promote digital inclusion among low-income populations. CDI, founded in 1995, has 820 training centers in 13 countries, with 479 of the centers in Brazil.
In 2010, CDI received 963 CPUs and 1,600 monitors. The components that CDI cannot reuse are sent to partner companies, which sort the waste and send it to be recycled.
“Last year was special,” Canaes says. “Many people chose to replace good equipment with technology upgrades. Because of the quality of the donations, we were able to build one computer from every two that were donated.”
How can you properly dispose of a computer?