They sat in a corner, gathering dust: monitors, printers, and central processing units, a couple dozen of them. Cindy Brethauer, network administrator for 1st Choice Bank, a community bank in Greeley, Colo., was tired of shuttling the equipment from branch to branch in an attempt to find sufficient storage space for it. Simply tossing the machines wasn't an option: federal environmental laws govern the disposal of computers, which contain lead and other substances that could contaminate air, soil, and groundwater. So what to do with the computers, casualties of Y2K compliance and the technology's relentless obsolescence?
Brethauer did some research on the Internet and found help at www.techrecycle.com. Technology Recycling LLC, headquartered in nearby Denver, hauls away old computers and peripherals in 60 cities across the country for $35 per component. (The company charges $75 to $150 for Unix machines because the disposal is more complicated.) Technology Recycling then pays 1,000 disabled people at 100 outside established work centers as much as $24 an hour to strip the machines to their chassis. And it coordinates the delivery of all the machine parts to facilities approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. (Glass and plastic end up as building materials; circuit boards, copper wires, and steel parts are sold to smelters.) Finally, the company provides customers with the paperwork that proves the deed was done in accordance with federal regulations. Company founder Bob Knowles deems his business plan elegant. "I'm taking an environmental problem and a business problem and solving another problem: the high unemployment of the disabled," he says.
Knowles, a self-funded entrepreneur, was running a Denver-based computer-upgrade business, Corporate Transition Consultants, when the recycling idea struck in response to customers' asking what to do with all their outmoded machines. He hung his green shingle in June 1998, and last summer he worked 14-hour days setting up operations so he could expand into 60 cities in time for Y2K. Knowles says that though last year's revenues were less than $100,000 because he was focusing on growth, he expects to recycle a million pieces of equipment this year for revenues ranging from $5 million to $6 million.
Sensitive data (like bank records and old E-mail messages à la Monica Lewinsky) aren't at risk because the workers grind up the computers' hard drives. And there's a tax benefit, too: companies can expect to save on their business personal-property taxes once they've removed the hulking dust magnets from their inventory. At 1st Choice, Brethauer says, the bank's accountants expect to save about $1,000 on those taxes this year -- which is close to what the company paid Technology Recycling to do its disappearing act.