Naked City

Dell Flunks TakeBack Test

The Computer TakeBack Campaign released its fourth annual Computer Report Card Thursday, and the image-conscious PC industry might now be thinking "social promotion" isn't such a bad idea. The report card -- largely driven by the activist Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition -- grades computer manufacturers on environmental responsibility, public health, and worker safety and how willing those companies are to publicize their efforts to deal with their shortcomings. It particularly targets the issue of so-called e-waste, the materials within computers that become hazardous when dumped into landfills and that often end up in dangerous salvage operations in poor nations.

The report card uses a scored system, offers a generous curve (merely scoring better than 50% is considered "passing"), and even has "extra credit" questions. Despite those allowances, the campaign is a harsh grader: Of the 28 companies examined, only Fujitsu passed (51.5%), eight companies were rated "needs improvement," three others were considered "poor," and the rest -- including Round Rock-based Dell Computer -- failed.

The report particularly singles out Dell for scolding, because that company is the industry sales leader. And although Dell instituted a consumer recycling program last year, campaign organizers complain that it charges the consumer a fee of about $30 to return obsolete equipment (thus discouraging participation), and it contracts with a federal prison labor company, known as UNICOR, which CTBC says is exempt from federal safety regulations and undercuts the development of a viable recycling industry. Campaign organizers also argue that the program isn't nearly as rigorous as Dell's government-mandated European one, thus giving U.S. consumers second-class treatment.

Texas Campaign for the Environment is a partner in the CTBC, and TCE Director Robin Schneider said, "Electronics manufacturers like Dell are dragging their heels here in the U.S. They haven't done what Europe has required and what they've managed to do there -- develop a comprehensive, effective, and verifiable solution to the growing problem of high-tech trash. We're calling on Dell to take the lead." Schneider argued that Dell's direct-sales model makes it perfect for a take-back program: "They're the only company that has the names and addresses of every one of its customers," which would allow them to easily track and take back old computers when the customer orders a new one.

Dell spokeswoman Michele Glaze responded that, "We're very disappointed in the grade, because we feel that we have been working toward being an environmental steward since we started the company." Glaze said she hasn't seen the report card, as it was announced while she was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but said, "We share the same common goal that the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Computer TakeBack Campaign have about trying to ensure that computers don't go into landfills -- that they're given new life and recycled."

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