Keeping an old Kaypro? Have a Tandy handy? Maybe it's a Commodore Amiga or an Atari 800, one of those heavy, clunky relics with dot matrix printers--like a forgotten Furbee, only worse.
Once the latest thing, now they're just old and basically worthless. In Howard County, though, there's a new place for obsolete computer gear, and a businessman who sees gold in it. Literally.
Howard County has allowed Scott Wilson, owner of a scrap business called Subtractions, to put a dumpster at the county landfill to collect computers that otherwise would be part of the landfill trash. Wilson carefully harvests them for precious metals, recyclable tin, usable cords and processors, squeezing value from as much as 85 percent of each computer.
"It can all be recycled except for a little bit of plastic," said Wilson, who put the dumpster at the landfill in early December and hauls computers from there to a warehouse in Jessup.
Most computers eventually find their way to a basement, storage facility or landfill. A National Safety Council study estimated that more than 20 million personal computers became obsolete in the United States last year, and only about 2.3 million of them were recycled in any way. About 1.3 million were restored or upgraded, mostly by groups that supply refurbished computers to schools and charitable organizations.
Nationwide, industry experts are forecasting a solid waste stream clogged with computers in coming years, and that could spike upward in coming weeks, as people and businesses rid themselves of computers that they can't make Y2K-compliant. One computer recycler in Denver estimates that 150 million to 250 million computers nationwide will be made obsolete by Y2K.
Across the country, scrap metal businesses have salvaged some value from computers for several years.
But there are few like Wilson, who picks apart each unit as if it were a chicken carcass, finding uses for the white and dark meat, the fat, the skin, even the bones.
"The circuit board, the metal housing, all the wire in them, all of it can be recycled," Wilson said. And then there's the gold.
The average computer contains up to a gram of gold, according to a report by the Mid-Atlantic Consortium of Recycling and Economic Development Officials. But don't go cracking open your cpu just yet. It would take about a ton of circuit boards to yield 10 ounces of gold.
Howard County officials say they welcome any idea that might reduce landfill volume, and with Y2K threatening to make many computers obsolete, Wilson approached them at just the right time. He and his wife, Sarah Manning, have sought similar arrangements with Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Steven Hudgins, chief of operations for Howard's Bureau of Environmental Services, said other suburban counties are taking notice.
"We're pretty much taking the lead, but Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore County have asked us questions and seem to be interested," he said.
Howard officials started the recycling program almost immediately--within days of receiving a proposal--as a six-month pilot, with Subtractions absorbing any costs. After a trial period, officials would solicit bids for the service countywide, in case another business might be willing to pay the county for the throw-away computers. For now, "Subtractions is the first [such business] that I'm aware of," Hudgins said.
"I expect it'll work," Hudgins said. He said he doesn't keep track of how many computers are dumped at the landfill, but he knows there are many and predicts the number will only grow.
"I think we'll get a lot of equipment, especially coming after Christmas," he said. Y2K glitches may contribute greatly to the pile, because many computers were programmed to recognize only the last two digits of a date and won't be able to distinguish between 2000 and 1900.
That's what Subtractions figures, too.
"He saw a couple of years ago that there's going to be problems with these things," Manning said of her husband.
The company has an arrangement with the Lazarus Foundation in Columbia, a nonprofit group based at Atholton High School that restores and gives away donated computers, to give Lazarus dibs on anything it can use. Conversely, when the foundation receives donations it can't use, it calls Wilson to pick them up.
Right now, the foundation doesn't want computers slower than 486s, and next year, it will advertise only for ones with Pentium processors or better. Anything less is too slow or can't run the latest software.
"Our goal is to try to keep as much as we can from going into the landfill," said Lazarus President Don Bard. The foundation looked into salvaging metals and parts from computers, but the volume required to see any return wasn't worth it, he said. "If Scott wasn't there, we'd have to take it to the landfill."
Wilson said the secret to making a profit in his business is "really volume," and that's what he hopes to develop.
In addition to bits of gold, there also are trace amounts of silver, copper and palladium in computers. He can't recycle monitors, which contain lead. Such materials may soon lead to federal rules prohibiting the dumping of computers into landfills, and some states already treat computers as hazardous waste.
The dumpster at the Alpha Ridge Landfill--at 2350 Marriottsville Road in Marriottsville--isn't overflowing with old computers, but officials plan to publicize the new service on the county Web site and in a monthly publication.
Residents or businesses that have more than 10 computers to throw away can call Wilson (at 301-924-0605) to have him pick up the equipment.
Manning thinks that someday soon she'll see many more businesses such as Subtractions. "It's one of these industries that's going to have to happen," she said.
CAPTION: Scott Wilson and his wife, Sarah Manning, say their Howard company can keep obsolete computers from cluttering landfills.