Auburn University's e-waste recycling efforts prevent computers from going in the garbage

By Katherine Harding, Office of Communications and Marketing

 

 

In a room of Auburn University's Surplus Property Building, there are 12 pallets of six-foot-tall plastic wrapped columns of computers, monitors and other electronic components. In the course of one month, the Surplus Property department has gathered nearly 10,000 pounds of electronic waste. If thrown in a landfill, these machines could leach lead, mercury or arsenic into the ground, air or water. The plastic, metal and glass components would never degrade and would remain in the landfill forever. As a sustainable campus, this is not something people at Auburn University could allow to happen with their old electronics.

When it is time to replace a computer on Auburn University's campus, it is not simply thrown in the trash. It is sent to Surplus Property, where Bill Capps and his coworkers sort out what can be saved and what cannot.

Capp estimates that Auburn had 62 tons of e-waste in 2011 including items like computer monitors, printers, fax machines and other computer parts.

"Progress makes things better, but leaves so much behind," said Capps. "People want the latest trend in technology and abandon the older models. Auburn University has a commitment to being sustainable, so throwing out-of-date computer systems in a landfill is not an option."

Capps said Surplus Properties first looks to sell or give the useable electronics to public schools in Alabama, other departments on campus or Alabama state-funded agencies. If no one wants them, the electronics are marked for recycling.

Auburn uses Creative Recycling, a Tampa-based company that picks up e-waste free of charge and disposes of it properly. Most of the components are reused or recycled.

"We are good stewards; we have to do things responsibly," said Capps.

Creative Recycling was recently featured in the documentary film, "Terra Blight," about the unintended consequences of America's consumption of technology. The film's director, Isaac Brown, and executive producer, Ana Habib, traveled to Auburn to host a screening of the film, as well as a discussion about the lifecycle of a computer.

"The computer was chosen to represent the bigger habit of irresponsible consumption and irresponsible disposal," explained Brown, who has been interested in how Americans consume and dispose of products for years.

Habib agreed. "The computer is a metaphor for this philosophical issue," she said.

Habib said the film is not condemning technology, but just trying to open the consumers' eyes to the problems of disposal.

"We love technology," she told the audience. "The message is not to give up computers, but to find a way to be responsible with them when they are replaced."

Auburn University knows about being responsible. Being a sustainable campus is more than just making sure a computer system is disposed of properly.

"The university has made a commitment to sustainability, and that means being aware of the impact of our decisions," said Mike Kensler, director of the Office of Sustainability.

Auburn University has many sustainable efforts on campus, including the yearly dorm competition, "Sustain-a-Bowl," where dorms compete to reduce electricity use, conserve water and recycle more.  Students also have the option to attain a 15-credit-hour minor in sustainability. The Auburn University Recycling Program was established in 2005 and has expanded to provide recycling bins in campus buildings, around campus and at special events.

"Over the past year and a half the Waste Reduction and Recycling Department has expanded its Campus Building Recycling Program to more than 50 buildings and has increased its recycling efforts with Athletics by collecting all of the plastic bottles left in the stands at Jordan-Hare Stadium," said Donny Addison, Waste Reduction and Recycling manager.

"The sustainable and recycling efforts all come down to Auburn University's core values and the dedication to future generations," said Kensler.

Last Updated: Oct. 18, 2012

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