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The greens have a new ally in keeping the planet clean, at least in the US, as IBM has announced that it has signed up to a new initiative to help people recycle unwanted computer hardware.

The initiative is aiming specifically at individuals and small sized businesses, and in exchange for $29.99, IBM will accept obsolete equipment and send it off to be recycled. The fee includes 'shipping costs', so all users have to do is box up the old hardware and send it to Envirocycle, a US recycling firm.

However, in Europe, the EC has proposed that industry should be responsible for the collection and disposal of electronic waste in a directive called 'Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment' or WEEE for short. Under the terms of the directive the manufacturers would also have to find a way to fund it. Passing the costs on to the consumer in such a direct way may only deter people from signing up.

As far as we know there is no equivalent in the US.

But it is clear that something needs to be done. A recent study by the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Centre estimated that in 1998 only 11 per cent of the 20.6 million obsolete PCs were recycled. Moreover, the NSC estimates that 315 million additional computers will become outdated by 2004.

Until now the industry in general has dealt with the problem by shipping old equipment to countries with weaker environmental laws for cheap but more hazardous disposal. So, this new scheme is certainly to be applauded in principle But does it go far enough and will people actually pay IBM to take away their old machines?

Environmental organisation, Friends of the Earth, says that it is imperative that old electrical equipment be recycled. According to a spokeswoman for the organisation there are two main issues. Firstly the question of resource efficiency: continued mining for the component metals is just not sustainable.

Secondly, there are very dangerous substances used in the manufacture of computers and peripherals. While the casings can be kept and recycled fairly easily, there is concern that more and more of the parts, which contain mercury, cadmium and lead, will end up in landfill site or illegal dumps. Incineration merely pumps loads of dioxins into the environment - a by product of the burning plastics.

Wayne Balta, IBM's director of corporate environmental affairs said that the service will allow the equipment to either be recycled "in an environmentally responsible way," or donated to a worthy cause if the equipment still works. ®

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