A Heavy Burden: Cleaning Up the Industry's eWaste

By David F. Carr

 

When your company "refreshes" computers, servers, and routers, getting rid of the old to make way for the new, the result may not be so refreshing for the environment, even if you think you've done everything right.

 

Consider the case of the City of Denver's contract with Executive Recycling of Englewood, Colo., to take old computer equipment off its hands. The company markets itself as a responsible recycler of eWaste, the toxic refuse our e-economy leaves in its wake. In particular, Executive Recycling made a point of distancing itself from the practice of shipping eWaste overseas to countries with few environmental or worker protection laws.

 

But then the company turned up in an exposé that aired in November in which 60 Minutes said it had tracked a shipping container full of cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors from the Executive Recycling loading dock to the port of Hong Kong. 60 Minutes then took viewers to a village in China where computer components were being melted down over open braziers for their lead or run through acid baths to extract gold. The report cited studies showing that the region has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world, a six fold increase in the likelihood of miscarriages, and elevated lead in the blood of seven out of ten children Executive Recycling has disputed the accuracy of the 60 Minutes report and suggested that it was the victim of a business partner. It has outlined its defense to the 60 Minutes in a statement on its Web site. The company did not return a call from CIOZone.

 

Irresponsible disposal of eWaste is an old story, says Frances O'Brien, an analyst who covers asset management issues for Gartner Inc. "I remember an expose from five or six years ago that had the same pictures of little kids playing in this muck from all the equipment that's lying there broken," she says.

 

O'Brien's general advice to information technology and procurement executives who deal with this issue hasn't changed for years - for most organizations, outsourcing the disposal of old equipment to "a reputable player" is the right answer. "But you really have to do your due diligence when you select somebody," she says.

 

Sarah O'Brien, Outreach Director for the Green Electronics Council, says Fortune 500 companies are typically well aware of the eWaste issue and are taking steps to address it responsibly. "But it's sometimes not easy to tell, even though you think you're doing the right thing and have contracted with a vendor that makes the proper assurances," she says.

 

Next: Computer Refuse: A Toxic Combination


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The eWaste issue revolves around heavy metals and other toxic chemicals used to manufacture our electronics. In particular, CRTs and other components such as computer motherboards contain significant quantities of lead that can leach into ground water, so the responsible action is to recycle those materials or treat them as hazardous waste rather than sending them to a landfill.

 

Enforcing prohibitions against eWaste exporting is complicated by U.S. law. Exports of toxic materials from rich countries to poorer ones is prohibited by an international treaty, the Basel Convention, but the U.S. is one of the few developed nations that has not ratified it. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations do prohibit the export of CRTs as scrap, but many critics believe the EPA isn't doing enough to address the issue in a systematic way.

 

"The laws here don't prevent it, and the economics favor it," so it's no surprise the export of hazardous electronics is so common, says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics Takeback Coalition.

 

Today, organizations that want to ensure their waste is being disposed of properly really have little recourse other than to conduct their own audits, she says. You don't have to stake out the loading and unloading of shipping containers the way 60 Minutes did, but you may have to hire an auditor and insist that your vendor show a thorough paper trail documenting the proper disposal of your eWaste, she says. There is some help coming from independent, voluntary industry programs.

 

The Basel Action Network, an organization that promotes the principles of the Basel Convention, has developed a voluntary program called the e-Steward Pledge through which recyclers can pledge adherence to responsible recycling policies. The program doesn't yet provide a full audit of the recycler's claims, but plans call for it to develop into a more rigorous certification program, Kyle says.

 

The Green Electronics Network also offers the Electronic Product Environment Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, a registry of manufacturers who have disclosed their environmental practices including efforts to reduce the toxic content of their products and to offer recycling programs (they get extra points if they also audit those recyclers).

 

Some eWaste exporting takes place out of necessity, even for the most responsible recyclers. For example, the only industrial smelters capable of reclaiming metals from circuit boards are abroad in places like Canada, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, and Japan. In contrast, the problem with trying to find a responsible recycling operation in the developing world is that those nations lack the legal infrastructure—not only in terms of environmental regulation but also labor laws and a free press—needed to keep them honest, Kyle says. It's also simply more practical for U.S. businesses to conduct onsite visits and otherwise audit vendors based in the U.S.

 

The City of Denver says it cancelled its contract with Executive Recycling in September. That was shortly after the Congressional General Accountability Office published a report faulting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for lax enforcement of rules against exporting CRTs as scrap. When GAO investigators posed as foreign buyers interested in obtaining CRTs, 43 companies readily agreed to ship them overseas in defiance of the ban. 60 Minutes identified Executive Recycling as one of those.

 

In general, the EPA has argued against the need for additional regulation of eWaste, saying it is already covered by measures such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the broader law covering hazardous waste disposal. Contacted amidst the change in administrations, an EPA spokeswoman limited her response on the issue to emailing a series of links to agency position papers. The EPA says it is investigating the CRT export violations reported by the GAO, and in July it levied a $32,500 fine against another vendor, Jet Ocean Technologies of Chino, Calif., after Hong Kong authorities intercepted a shipment of 441 CRT monitors and sent it back to the U.S.

 

In its written response to the GAO report, the EPA argued against exaggerating the extent of eWaste exports, noting that electronics represent only 15 to 20 percent of our electronic waste is collected for recycling in the first place - with the remaining 80-plus percent still going into landfills.

 

Next: A More Unified Approach Required

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A More Unified Approach Required

 

At the moment, 17 states and the City of New York have passed laws restricting eWaste disposal. As a result, setting a federal standard would come as a relief for companies that operate nationwide, Gartner's O'Brien says. "A more unified approach, rather than this patchwork laws proposed and being passed, would be helpful."

 

In the absence of airtight regulation, some recyclers give in to the temptation to cut costs and boost profits by sending the problem offshore. "Recyclers" shipping into the offshore scrap electronics market are also more likely to offer to take waste away for little or no cost—or even pay for it—making some customers less inclined to ask a lot of questions.

 

"If someone says 'I'll do it for free,' that's a warning sign," says Albert Lozano, president and CEO of Raident, an electronics recycler in Silicon Valley. He says he has occasionally been able to pay customers disposing of equipment with a high gold content, but as a routine matter "there's always a charge," he says.

 

Besides improper environmental disposal, unethical vendors could also be harvesting data from computer hard drives rather than erasing or destroying them, Lozano says. Many of his customers are at least as worried about data security breaches related to discarded equipment as they are about the environmental impact, he says. Yet many also have a hard time enforcing whatever policies they have put in place - not just on their vendors, but on employees who often tend to throw equipment in the dumpster rather than disposing of it as eWaste, Lozano says. And some smaller companies try to ignore the issue for as long as possible, he says, like the one that was only embarrassed into starting a recycling program because "dumpster diving" thieves were causing too much of a mess on its property, he says.

 

Pradeep Saxena, director of information technology sourcing at Kaiser Permanente, says his firm has a more positive take on eWaste disposal issues, considering them in the broader context of its green computing initiatives.

 

The healthcare company leases much of its computer equipment from Hewlett-Packard, making HP responsible for disposing of equipment at the end of the leasing period, but Kaiser Permanente still follows through to monitor HP's disposal practices, he says. For equipment not covered by the HP agreement, Kaiser works with Redemtech of Columbus, Ohio, one of the recyclers that has signed the Basel Action Network pledge. The procurement office also consults EPEAT for guidance on purchasing new equipment.

 

"My premise is it is either cost neutral or cost reducing," Saxena says, when the cost of responsible disposal is balanced against the savings the healthcare company is achieving by replacing old equipment with new PCs, servers, and network devices that make more efficient use of electricity, cooling, and data center space. "Once you do it the right way, you will find you are being dollar wise," he says.

 

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