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The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Drastic Plastic : The Hard Stuff is Finally Getting Attention from Recycling Industry


BERKELEY — From his perch atop a 10-foot metal platform, Ken Schillereff reaches into a cardboard box and grabs a handful of snow skis. He tosses them into a large steel tank and latches the lid. Then, with flicks of three switches, this small recycling factory fills with the clatter of grinding.

For the next few minutes, the skis are ground, blown and sucked through an elaborate series of pipes, magnets and filters, until, reduced to shards and dust, they are shot into separate bins of metal, pulp, plastic and wood. Mike Biddle, president and founder of MBA Polymers, which opened this state-of-the-art recycling plant last April, reaches his hands into the barrel of plastic and examines it closely.

"Not bad for the first five minutes," he pronounces. The next task, he says, will be to tinker with the equipment and reprocess the skis until the plastic is pure, uncontaminated by wood.

Biddle, a chemical engineer who has worked in plastics for years, is a man with a dream: to keep the billions of pounds of plastic in computers, automobiles, telephones and other products out of landfills, and to show that it is economically viable to recycle this plastic into new products.

He is a pioneer in a new industry: hard-plastics recycling. Soft plastics, like those used in bottles and bags, have been recyclable for years. But durable plastics, such as computers housings and automobile dashboards, have been much harder to recycle, largely because they are mixed with so much nonplastic material, including metal and foam, and with so many different types of plastic.

But today, hard plastic manufacturers--especially in the computer industry--are taking a keen interest in recycling. Computer sales are rising steadily, but the life span remains short because of rapidly changing technology, and thus computers are being discarded at an alarming rate.

More than 70 million computers now sit on home and office desktops around the U.S. A study by Carnegie Mellon University says that within two years, one computer will become obsolete for every new one sold. At that rate, the study predicts, 150 million computers will wind up in landfills by 2005.

Meanwhile, 19 states, including California, have banned refrigerators and other large appliances from landfills. And Sen. Milton Marx (D-San Francisco) plans to introduce legislation that would help fund the recycling of computers and other electronic equipment.

Computer makers are scrambling to respond. Last summer, Hewlett Packard announced that the outer casings of its DeskJet 850 printers would be made with up to 25% recycled plastic. Though this plastic is not generated from its own products, the company has set up a recycling center and a take-back program, under which consumers can arrange to ship back old equipment.

Hewlett Packard is also working with MBA Polymers on a process for recycling ink jet cartridges for printers. Stacey Savage, an H-P spokeswoman, says the company has supplied about 100 bins to large offices for the collection of empty cartridges. H-P would like to put them in stores as well, she says, but retailers are reluctant, so for now the only recycling method for consumers is to pay the cost of mailing empty cartridges back.

An IBM program in England is recycling used polyvinyl chloride (PVC) into new keyboards. And virtually all computer manufacturers have instituted design for "environment" programs in which they try to incorporate design elements that minimize energy consumption and waste while promoting reuse and recycling. An IBM program in England is recycling used polyvinyl chloride (PVC) into new keyboards.

Biddle regularly consults with computer companies on how best to "design in" recyclability, and he stresses two main points. One is for plastics used in equipment to be easily removable from other material, such as metal and foam. The second is for different kinds of plastics to have densities that are sufficiently different from each other that they can be easily separated during recycling.

One new technology that MBA Polymers is putting to good use is the latest in plastics identification machinery. The company's high-tech scanners can instantly distinguish between the more than 30 different types of plastic in commercial use, a process that used to take half an hour or more.

To demonstrate, Biddle holds the housing from an H-P printer up to the scanner of an infrared spectrometer, which he likens to a computerized fingerprint analyzer. He steps once on a foot pedal and a red stop light turns yellow, then green. A second later, the letters "ABS" flash on the screen.

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