eWaste: Becoming Part of the Solution

By Ellen Pearlman

Recycling has become a part of the American vernacular and many of us do our best to recycle our household glass, plastic and paper that we no longer need. But far too many individuals and organizations are uncertain about how to get rid of electronic equipment that is obsolete, broken or just plain old. Worse still, some companies make it a point to send their e-waste to recycling companies, but have no guarantee that the equipment they turn over to recyclers won't end up in landfills or shipped to developing countries for dismantling, burning and recovery of precious metals inside.

This wouldn't be such a problem if it weren't for the fact that e-waste is toxic to humans and the environment. According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition briefing book e-waste is made up of many toxic materials and known carcinogens, including: lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, PVC and beryllium. When the products housing these chemicals-computers, printers, cellphones, televisions, monitors, PDAs and other electronic equipment-are shipped overseas they often end up in places like Guiyu in Southern China. Here men, women and children dismantle the equipment and salvage valuable metals using their hands or primitive retrieval methods. A 60 Minutes program filmed the recycling process and noted that "Guiyu has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world." Pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage and 70 percent of the kids have too much lead in their blood.

For concerned IT executives that want to be sure their e-waste doesn't end up being shipped illegally to places like Guiya or to prisons where inmates are exposed to dangerous levels of lead and cadmium there are resources that can help identify responsible recyclers. The Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Electronics Takeback Coalition have created the e-Stewards Initiative to help consumers, organizations, governments and businesses find companies that have pledged to recycle responsibly. And last November, one day after the CBS 60 Minutes program on the dangers of e-waste aired, the two environmental groups announced that they were launching an extension to the e-Stewards program by creating an e-waste accreditation and certification program. Computerworld reported in November that BAN will push for federal legislation this year to prohibit dumping of e-waste to developing countries (the U.S. has not ratified the 1992 BAN treaty). While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rules against shipping CRT monitors overseas, a U.S. Government Accountability Report said several U.S. recyclers appear to be breaking the rules.

Next: A Roundup of Resources on eWaste

{mospagebreak title=A Roundup of Resources on eWaste}

Keeping informed about environmental initiatives can be difficult. There are numerous articles, films, books and reports on the subject of e-waste that CIOs and their teams will find useful. Here's a roundup of some of the best sources of information on the subject to bring you up to date:

Basel Action Network:
List of Policy Principles
BAN works to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis. This link goes to the 20 principles that the organization and their members support.

High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health by Elizabeth Grossman (May 2006)
A report on the alarming environmental and health threats caused by toxins in digital devices.

The Dirty Secret of Recycling Electronics (October 15, 2008)
Lax rules and weak enforcement allow scrap companies to profit by sending junked computers, printers and TVs overseas.

Green IT-Corporate Strategies (February 11, 2008)
Recent reports from Gartner, Forrester and McKinsey highlight the costs of and savings from implementing green-tech corporate strategies.

A Comparison of Reuse Versus Recycling (March 2, 2008)
The environmental benefits of reuse versus recycling are demonstrated by comparing the savings from reusing 100 computers with CRT monitors versus disposing of the equipment in a landfill. (Click on "Comparison PDF")

CIO Survey:
Results from CIO magazine's Green IT Study (March 17, 2008)
Two factors are driving a move to green IT: cost cutting related to energy efficiency and a desire to be more socially responsible.

U.S. Exports Harmful e-Waste to Other Countries (September 17, 2008)
The thriving market for discarded electronic equipment exists despite EPA rules.

Gartner Report:
Green IT-The New Industry Shock Wave (for Gartner clients, published December 7, 2007)
Predictions on how Green IT will evolve and recommendations for how IT organizations should respond.

Guide to Greener Electronics
This Guide ranks leading mobile and PC manufacturers on their global policies and practices on eliminating harmful chemicals and on taking responsibility for their products once they are discarded by consumers. Companies are ranked solely on information that is publicly available.

New York Times:
It Comes in Beige or Black, But You Make It Green (October 2, 2008)
What you can do to make your computers more energy efficient and what some manufacturers are doing to remove hazardous waste from their computers.

New York Times:
The Afterlife of Cellphones (published January 13, 2008)
Cellphones are the most valuable form of e-waste-each one contains about a dollar's worth of precious metals-but they also contain significant amounts of hazardous materials.

strategy + business:
The Eco IT Solution (register to access the Winter 2008 article)
Why IT departments need an environmental impact planning system (EIP) that measures the input and outputs that make up a company's environmental footprint.

The Digital Dump-Exporting Re-Use and Abuse to Africa (from BAN, also available in text format)

CBS—Following The Trail of Toxic e-Waste (November 9, 2008)
60 Minutes and correspondent Scott Pelley takes viewers to one of the most toxic places on earth-made that way as a result of becoming an e-waste dump site.

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