CHAMPAIGN – Nine years ago, Willie Cade started a company to refurbish old computers so schools and nonprofits could use them.
Since then, he and his employees have refurbished 40,000 personal computers – equipment that otherwise might have ended up in landfills.
His company, PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, gets computers from both businesses and individuals. His biggest supplier: Vanguard Group, the Pennsylvania-based investment management company.
Cade's business sells the systems to schools and other organizations, charging them a $150 fee for the refurbishing process. For that, they get a complete system, a three-year warranty and a toll-free number for customer support.
Although much of the distribution is done in the Chicago area, Cade said he has customers all over the country.
He recently shipped 250 computers to schools in the Los Angeles area.
With two children at the University of Illinois, Cade seemed a natural choice to chair the Industry Advisory Council of the new Sustainable Electronics Initiative on the UI campus.
On Wednesday, he became the inaugural speaker for a new lecture series sponsored by the UI's Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability.
Speaking to about 70 people at the I Hotel and Conference Center, Cade said about 90 million PCs will be sold in the United States this year and about 250 million will be sold worldwide.
Altogether, probably between 1 billion and 1.5 billion PCs are in use around the globe, he added.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 81 percent of electronic equipment ends up going to a landfill, but Cade said he thinks the figure is suspect. He said he checked with waste centers serving the Chicago area and found they received only about 100 computers in a two-week period.
But he still laments the fact people throw away equipment with plenty of use left.
"The tragedy is that people think it's obsolete and not useful when it is (useful)," Cade said. "The perception of obsolescence is the No. 1 problem, not obsolescence."
Data collected through his business indicate people use and store PCs, laptops, monitors and other peripherals for an average of 10.6 years.
But the average storage time is less than a year, so people appear to use the equipment more than nine years – a period some may find astonishingly long.
One reason users keep equipment rather than throwing it away is fear that data may be extracted by someone else.
To prevent that from happening, various governmental agencies require data be written over multiple times – some say three times, others prescribe seven or 10 times.
But Cade said once is enough. He tags his equipment to indicate the data have been destroyed.
Cade said those wanting to know about electronic waste collections in their area may want to check www.ewastecalendar.com for information. Right now, only events in Cook County are listed, but the site should be much more comprehensive after Jan. 1, he said.
Cade said 80 percent of the energy that goes into a PC's life cycle comes from its manufacture. In all the equipment he's refurbished, he's seen only one broken integrated circuit – it "literally exploded," he said.
"Integrated circuits don't break," he said. "We need to do a better job of using them."