Students Demand Dell Recycle Computers


Students and Dell computers. These days, the two go hand-in-hand. Or that's what Steven, Dell's half student/half surfer spokesperson would have us believe. With his obnoxious antics and continuous presence on televisions across the country, Steven is drilling catch phrases like, "Dude, you should have bought a Dell!" into the minds of the next generation of college students. Whether they relate to him or not, the Steven campaign may just be helping Dell corner the college market.

Since the campaign began just over a year ago, Dell reports a 100 percent increase in consumer sales. While young customers may be drawn to Dell's affordable prices and catchy marketing tactics, they may be overlooking the fact that the company is counting on them to buy a brand new computer in a just few years. When this happens, their outdated or defunct computers have to be thrown away or recycled.

That's where the Computer Take Back Campaign comes in. The campaign's new site,, calls on Dell to become a leader in environmental responsibility and offers up a wealth of information about the need for computer recycling programs. The site uses Steven's newly-famous chesire grin and, in a subversive play on his gimmicky teen language, reads: "the computers on your campus are totally toxic."

Tens of millions of computers become obsolete in the United States every year because of growing sales and shorter life spans. One of the largest known sources of heavy metals like lead, mercury, and other pollutants, discarded electronics threaten public health and the environment. Campaign organizer, Kara Reeve, explains that because of "the growing amount of electronic waste, the high levels of toxins found in computers, and the issue of exporting computer waste to third world nations" the Computer Take Back Campaign intends to target Dell as a leader in the computer industry and to demand responsibility for the duration of their products' life span.

"The corporate world has too much leeway without facing any consequences. It's our responsibility to step up and say 'no, we aren't going to take it!'"

What would this mean exactly? Well, instead of donating used computers or putting them out the street, the Computer Take Back Campaign wants companies like Dell to make it easier for computer owners to send their equipment back to its producers at no cost. Basically the campaign is asking Dell to offer the same programs in the United States as it offers its European customers. In Germany, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Denmark, Dell provides programs that take back computers for free. The computers are then reused, recycled, or disposed of appropriately according to each country's environmental standards. European producer responsibility laws require companies to offer such programs to ensure that valuable materials are recycled and their products do not end up in landfills.

Because of Dell's efforts to gain college-aged consumers, the Computer Take Back Campaign is especially reliant upon student activism to launch this movement. Kara explains, "Dell is the leading seller of computers to government agencies and educational institutions. Since we are organizing on campuses and many colleges have contracts with Dell, students can put pressure on their school to negotiate contracts with Dell that include Take Back."

While the campaign is just beginning, some students are rising to the challenge. "The corporate world has too much leeway without facing any consequences. It's our responsibility to step up and say 'no, we aren't going to take it!'" says Karl Horberg, a second-year at American University in Washington D.C. Every computer at AU facilities is a Dell and every student receives an email from university administration at the beginning of the school year encouraging them to buy a Dell. Karl, who is also working as an intern for Ecopledge and Freedomplanet this fall, says he hopes that students who feel targeted by Dell ads will also get involved in the campaign.

Karl launched the Computer Take Back Campaign at AU with a press release to local newspapers and radio stations on September 18. In addition to petitioning, Karl plans to use alternative campaign measures to reveal Dell as an environmental slacker. Some of his plans for the semester include changing campus computer homepages to and leaving informative flyers on computer keyboards.

The AU activist is particularly confident that his peers will get involved because of a history of toxic waste on campus. The U.S. Army is currently in the process of cleaning up arsenic under the Athletic Field at AU, leftover from a weapons testing facility that was located there during World War I. As a result Karl and his fellow students are forced to live with the debris and disruption involved with the toxic waste cleanup.

Because they go to class facing the reality of toxic waste daily, Karl believes AU students are particularly alert to toxic issues like the ones highlighted by the Computer Take Back Campaign. "Say 'toxic' to AU students, and they will relate," he says.

Lindsay Green, an Ecopledge Project Coordinator at the University of Colorado in Boulder, does not face a toxic clean up. In fact, Lindsay describes her campus as "greener" than most, or at the very least non-toxic. One major reason Lindsay expects 10 percent of CU students to sign an Ecopledge petition calling for Dell recycling programs is that the university community is already environmentally conscious. "Because you have the mountains less than a mile away," she explains, "there are so many people who are on their bikes all the time and just being really active. In general, being environmentally friendly is a big deal in Boulder."

"These corporations are spending millions and millions of dollars targeting people our age right now, because we are the people who will work for them, buy stock from them, and buy from them for the rest of our lives."

While Washington D.C. and Boulder, Colorado offer seemingly opposite backdrops to college campuses, AU and CU share a common thread. Like AU, Lindsay reports that her campus also has a business relationship with Dell computers along with Macintosh. Lindsay says she does not have a problem with CU making arrangements with corporations like Dell, she just wants such deals to take environmental issues into consideration. "It's not that we're not supporting Dell computers." Lindsay asserts, " in fact, Dell has been environmentally friendly in the past. We target Dell because we want them to take it a step further and to really catapult to the number one environmental leader in their field."

In addition to Dell's contracts with universities across the country, Kara, a campaign organizer, explains other reasons for targeting Dell over other computer manufacturers. "Dell is a $32 billion a year company controlling the largest share of the global personal computer market...If Dell meets our demands, then other companies will fall into line as well." Kara also points out that "Michael Dell is a highly visible CEO who has built a company that knows every customer by name and can easily contact them." Kara explains that these circumstances allow Dell to adopt Take Back programs almost effortlessly.

Lindsay has confidence that Dell and other computer companies will pay attention to students as activists as much as they focus on students as consumers. "These corporations are spending millions and millions of dollars targeting people our age right now, because we are the people who will work for them, buy stock from them, and buy from them for the rest of our lives."

The CU activist says that harnessing students' economic power is the key to Ecopledge's success with over 100, 000 students getting involved. With two campaigns competing for the attention of college students nationwide, one boosting the profits of a corporation, the other mobilizing activists to demand computer recycling programs, the question remains, will 100,000 students be enough?

Students interested in participating in the Computer Take Back Campaign can contact Kara Reeve at or sign up to be a Campus Chapter Leader at

Molly "Dude" Kirk does not own a Dell herself, but has gone through two laptops in her days as a college student. A recent UCLA graduate, she still uses one to search for employment on the Internet. The other sits in her closet waiting to be recycled.
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