December 31, 2004


The Fate of Discarded Personal Computers in Japan

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.28 (December 2004)

How many personal computers (PCs) are being used in Japan? In fiscal 2002, the number of PC units shipped within Japan was 9.84 million, and it is estimated that about 40 percent of these were for home use. In fiscal 2001, an estimated 24 million units were being used in homes, meaning that 50.1 percent of households in Japan own a PC.

A PC is expected to last for three to five years due to the demand for new models, hardware replacement, part turnover, and other factors. Thus, the number of PCs being discarded is expected to continue increasing toward a total of about eight tons a year.

The Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources was established in October 2001; this law aims to reduce PC waste and to promote the reuse of resources recycled from discarded PCs such as steel, aluminum and copper. This law requires the recycling of discarded PCs; used PCs must be collected and recycled appropriately by manufacturers. This law came into effect for business-use PCs in April 2001 and for home-use PCs in October 2003.

The law also specifies target ratios for recycled parts and resources from used PCs in terms of weight. In fiscal 2003, the target ratios were 50 percent for desktop PCs was 50 percent, 20 percent for notebook PCs, 55 percent for CRT monitors and 55 percent for LCD monitors.

Japan has several recycling laws, and so two methods for paying recycling fees are currently used. For example, for some electric appliances such as TV sets, refrigerators, air-conditioners and washing machines, a fee is paid at the time of disposal, but in the case of automobiles, the fee is paid at the time of purchase. As in the case of electric appliances, fees for recycling business-use PCs are paid by the business to the manufacturer at the time of disposal. The case for home-use PCs is the same as for automobiles, in which consumers pay a recycling fee at the time of purchase. PCs in the latter category are labeled with a PC recycling mark to indicate that no fee is required at the time of disposal.

However, this system came only into use after October 2003, so home-use PCs bought before then did not include the recycling fee in their price. Consumers have to pay the fee at the time of disposal, using a bank remittance bill they request from the manufacturer. On payment of the fee, the manufacturer send the consumer an "eco-parcel label," and the consumer packs up the PCs puts the label on the package and sends the PC back to the manufacturer via the post office or a parcel delivery service.

Recycling fees are set by each manufacturer, but there is not much difference between them. The fee for recycling the main unit of desktop PCs, notebook PCs and LCDs is usually 3,150 yen (about U.S.$30), and the fee all-in-one PCs with CRT displays is usually 4,200 yen (about U.S.$40).

According to a report issued by Personal Computer 3R Promotion Center, a limited liability intermediate corporation, 186,302 PCs were recovered in the year beginning October 1, 2003, the date when PC manufacturers began collecting home-use PCs based on the Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources. This figure is based on the number of eco-parcel labels issued. One label is issued for each PC main unit and each monitor.

Manufacturers recycle the PCs by first dismantling them into separate pieces and materials, and these are collected by specialized dealers. Efforts are also being made to recover as many reusable parts as possible for use as replacement parts.

Many used PCs still work fine. In Japan, the second-hand PC market is expanding, and is sometimes said to represent nearly 10 percent of the total PC market.

NEC, one of Japan's major PC manufacturers, buys used NEC PCs from ordinary users, and resells them as "NEC Refreshed PCs" after checking and cleaning them. In May 2004, NEC also started the interesting practice of installing Office 2003 software in these computers, providing an upgrade on the original PCs and enhancing their performance.

A non-profit organization in Saitama Prefecture, the Universal Community Center, has also started classes on PC structure and assembly in response to the fact that many PCs are thrown away still loaded with usable parts because many users lack knowledge about PC hardware.

Students learn that PCs are not too complicated to handle, and that upgrades and maintenance is possible with a little additional knowledge about the computer. It plans to hold PC classes about once every three months.

If more people knew how to fix their PCs by simply replacing parts to update functions, or repair an out-of-order machine, more usable parts would be utilized longer and overall waste volumes reduced.

Another non-profit organization called "e-elder" operates a program for collecting used PCs from companies that no longer need them in order to donate the PCs to other non-profit organizations. The members of this NPO are mainly individuals with technical knowledge, experience and skills in information technology who wish to use their expertise to support non-profit activities and help improve the quality of life of people suffering from the lack of information.

This NPO requests companies to donate used PCs, outsources refurbishment to recycling facilities or welfare workshops, and then delivers the PCs to other NPOs. The refurbishment process involves various fields of expertise; the software is provided by Microsoft Co., while replacement parts, recycling techniques, and security management support are provided by IBM Japan Ltd. The cost of operating the project is covered by IBM Japan, Microsoft Co., and PC donor companies.

The project was launched in 2001, when e-elder donated 1,025 reused PCs to 283 organizations. In 2002, 2,011 units were donated to 731 organizations and in 2003, 3,050 units were donated to 808 organizations.

In addition to helping companies make a contribution to society, this project achieves several goals, such as helping NPOs, reducing environmental impacts by promoting reuse of PCs, and revitalizing communities while boosting employment for disabled people who refurbish the PCs.

Reuse is always more desirable than recycling, a principle that does not apply only to PCs. E-elder is making a notable effort to be of use to society by encouraging the use of refurbished PCs.

In future, we wonder if it would be possible for people to upgrade their systems by simply replacing the parts that would achieve the upgrade, such as CPUs or hard disks, while retaining their still-usable keyboards, monitors, etc. Many companies already have ideas for prospective products that can be upgraded in this manner, but none have successfully commercialized the technology yet.

Replacing the whole when only a part of it is damaged or outdated is not a very sophisticated approach. PCs are the products of an IT industry which is supposed to be state-of-the-art, so perhaps we can hope to see a new way of handling the goods generated by this industry.

Also, we as users should not simply be attracted to novelty, but should decide on the functions we really need and maximize the life of our computers by using a little more ingenuity.

(Staff writer Yuriko Yoneda / Junko Edahiro)