Computer Reincarnation

Touring Neil Mcmanus' house is like touring his personal cyber museum.

"This is a little gem I picked up at a thrift store for $100," McManus says, showing off a new acquisition.

Every computer he has ever owned is still there -- nine in all.

"I haven't learned how to get rid of them," he laughs.

Mcmanus can laugh about it, but it is a dilemma confronting more and more Americans, as computers quickly become outdated.

By one estimate, 20 million computers are retired each year, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts. Most are thrown in the closet or the trash. And that's the problem. Circuit boards and monitors contain harmful amounts of lead -- as much as 7 toxic pounds per computer.

To keep computers out of landfills, several counties across the country have set up special recycling programs, like one in Minnesota.

"We take our garbage seriously," says Randy Johnson, the Hennepin County Commissioner. "We're going after the biggest source of lead and mercury and other heavy metals first."

And there is money to be made in the old motherboards and monitors. One company in Texas, Resource Concepts, is mining gold, lead and mercury from discarded computers.

Ray Chapman, CEO of Resource Concepts, says his company is finding practical uses for old computers - such as a kitchen sink made out of ground up circuit boards.

In Massachusetts, potholes are filled with smashed up, melted computer goo.

But not all computers have to end up as roadfill.

James Burgett is a computer refurbisher in Oakland, California who is breathing new life into dead computers.

"It came as an obsolete 486 and it's going to go out as probably a Pentium 200," Burgett says, pointing to an old machine.

In the last 6 years, he has refurbished some 6,000 computers, donating them to hospitals in third world countries and schools in the inner city.

"You give a computer to an organization like us, you get a tax write-off and at the very least, if they're a responsible organization you guarantee that it will not end up in your landfill. And at the very best, some budding computer geniuses out there, somewhere, will achieve something," says Burgett.

But trashing your computer that once held your personal information may be hazardous.

"The more files you hold onto, the more data you hold onto, the greater your chance that one day it is going to come back and bite you," says Joan Feldman, a computer investigator.

Feldman has built a robust business rooting out old information from computers -- data you may have thought you erased. She knows computers can retain information forever, and she recommends drastic action before dumping that PC.

"There is a tendency with people, when they are giving computers away or when they are donating them or selling them, to not think about the fact that those hard drives on those computers are like enormous tape recording devces," she says.

"This is a good way to get rid of the evidence!" Feldman exclaims, driving a drill through an old hard drive.

Computer collector Neil McManus knows that danger first-hand. A used computer he bought at a thrift store for a hundred dollars contained someone else's private files.

"Their bank account their investments, their entire financial lives are in these files," he says.

Consumers could extend the life span of their computers by upgrading them, but more often they cast them aside in favor of speedier models. This creates an environmental and personal privacy nightmare.

"We are a disposable society," Burgett says. "The technology is constantly changing, but computer companies are actively making design decisions which discourage you from upgrading your existing box and going out and buying a new box."

A recent survey by the National Safety Council found that in 2002, there will be over three million more computers that have outlived their usefulness than new desktop PCs shipped in this country.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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