The Digital Dump

Randy Lewis with not-ok computers. John Gilhooley photo


In 1998, Randy Lewis had a pregnant wife and no job. Then his monitor blew out. A computer geek, the Huntington Beach native knew throwing it in the trash was about as environmentally friendly as dumping motor oil in a sea gull's mouth, but he didn't know how to properly rid himself of the damn thing.

"There weren't many companies doing it at the time," Lewis now says, so he founded SoCal Computer Recyclers. Eight years later, it's one of the state's largest private computer recyclers and also a major player in enacting state legislation that allows people to cheaply—and safely—dispose of computers, monitors and other electronic effluvia.

Disposing of computers is quite the booming business: the National Security Council estimates that 20 million computers will become obsolete this year, and only about 11 percent of that number will be properly disposed of. Lewis spoke recently with the Weeklyabout electronics waste, his company's coming Huntington Beach event and why televisions are only slightly safer than Hiroshima.

Let's say I get a new computer and dump my old one in the trash. Am I the PC equivalent of theExxon Valdez?

Of course not. You look at the context of the environment, and throwing away a PC isn't going to permanently wreck an ecosystem. It's not going to kill birds. Having said that, you can't throw them in the trash. It won't immediately kill you, but it doesn't belong in the trash.

Excuse my idiocy, but what's so poisonous about the parts in a computer?

There's a lot of lead in monitors—about 2 to 4 pounds—to make sure we don't get fried by cathode rays. Throw it in the dump, that lead will eventually seep into the water supply. Computers also have large amounts of mercury and copper—copper will mess up your joints, while mercury can make you crazy. We get those materials and make sure they're properly disposed.

Which is the bigger toxic trap—Macs or PCs?

If you were to look at it box to box, both are equal. But even more toxic are televisions. They have a larger-sized tube than anything else—more lead and bad rays.

Why do you think so few people know how to properly dispose of computers?

There's a bunch of answers. The easiest is that we live in a disposable society. When we're done with something, we want it out of our lives. The second answer is because people have this perception of value. Four years ago, people would buy a computer for $1,200 that was the latest and greatest. Now no one wants that computer. I get jokes from people that their computers should belong in the Smithsonian. But even theywouldn't want it.

Your website says your company is "the most well-respected authority for computer recycling in California." How do you attain that title?

One of the reasons that I feel comfortable saying that is because I was in Sacramento working to make the words of Senate Bills 20 and 50 get into practice.

What did those bills do?

SB 20 made manufacturers responsible for the proper disposal of electronics in California. SB 50 closed loopholes in SB 20 that exempted items like camcorders, digital cameras or flat-screen TVs. The two also created a recycling fee that goes back to manufacturers so they can fund recycling and disposal efforts.

What's your organization doing to promote proper disposal?

We do advertising, go to chambers of commerce, schools and big businesses. If people give us computers that are still relatively useful, we refurbish them and give them to whoever wants it at a cheap cost. We also have recycling events.

Like what?

A couple of Earth Days ago, we had an event in Torrance where we invited people to drop off their used electronics for free. We thought 200 people would show up. Instead, 600 arrived. We were shocked.

What can we expect at your Huntington Beach event Jan. 6 and 7? A big bonfire of Macs?

(Laughs.) No, you won't get that. We have it down to a professional science. We get people in parking lots, and our workers unload the person's stuff. Ideally, these people don't get out of their cars. Just drop off your computer and take off!


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