Penn State Intercom......February 6, 2003

Computer recycling program goes to jail

By Bill Campbell
Special to Intercom computer_junk1

Federal prison inmates are helping Penn State save money and protect the environment.
The University is recycling its scrap computer and electronic equipment through UNICOR, the Federal Prison Industries. Since becoming involved in the program two years ago, Penn State has shipped more than 90,000 pounds of scrap equipment for recycling.

"It is an excellent program that enables us to recycle scrap material that otherwise would be dumped in landfills," Glenn Feagley, computer support and facilities coordinator at the Penn State Surplus Warehouse, said.

"In the past, the University paid private companies 7 to 10 cents a pound for removal of this scrap equipment. There is no charge from UNICOR. More importantly, the program reinforces the University's commitment to environmental concerns and enhances our solid waste recycling program, which is considered one of the best in higher education.

"Recycling is extremely important to us. There are 70 to 80 pounds of waste per computer. Without recycling, that material would take up landfill space that is becoming limited. And, since computers contain many potentially hazardous materials such as lead, mercury and cadmium, landfilling them poses a threat to the environment, along with health concerns."

UNICOR is the trade name of Federal Prison Industries, a wholly owned government corporation, which employs 25 percent of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' inmate population. Under the Electronic Recycling Program, inmates break down the equipment and separate the parts into categories. The goal is to make certain that every part and component gets reused or recycled. The sale of recycled components and refurbished products fully funds the program.

After hearing about the program, Feagley contacted UNICOR and the Surplus Warehouse began working on a trial basis through a facility in Elkton, Ohio. For the past nine months, they have been working with the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg.

"With Elkton, we had to wait four to six months for them to pick up the material," he said, "and it often amounted to 26 to 28 skids, each of which holds 200 to 500 pounds of computer equipment. Since Lewisburg is much closer, we can deliver it more often."

There are three levels of computer material at the Surplus Warehouse, a unit of Procurement and Materials Management, located at Services and Big Hollow Roads on the University Park campus.

The best of used equipment -- 3- to 5-year-old machines in good working condition -- is offered for sale in the sales store.

The second level involves machines that are 5 to 8 years old and have no resale value in the store. They are sold for parts in bulk to private companies in Williamsport, Tyrone and Altoona. This level equipment also is offered at two auctions held annually by Surplus Warehouse.

"Our auctions really have been successful," Feagley said. "We often have more than 200 people attend. Some are there for only one piece of equipment or for one part. It is not a major moneymaker, but it introduces a number of new people to the warehouse and helps us get rid of equipment quickly."

The third level is the scrap material sent to UNICOR. All data is removed from this equipment and the hard drives are destroyed.

According to Feagley, used computer equipment is big business.

"Penn State's library system itself supports 2,500 to 3,000 computers, most of which are on a three-year lease," he said. " At the end of the lease, they are no longer under warranty and often are sent to us. We try to sell them and return some funds to the department.

"In the past, computers were turned in when they were 7 to 9 years old and then 5 to 7 years old. Now it is not unusual to replace computers after three years because of developing technology, including new software and support.

"We have to price the equipment to move, but the market is so competitive that it is driving the price down. We don't offer a warranty. Most buy the equipment as is, but it is tested. We try to sell back to Penn State faculty, staff and students."

Feagley believes the UNICOR electronic recycling program will continue to grow.

"More and more universities are participating in the program," he said. "Michigan State is working with them and Oregon State will start soon. We have gotten calls from other universities who have heard about our involvement. We view it as an important environmental effort and we're proud to be involved."

Bill Campbell can be reached at