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Recycle your computer electronics responsibly

IT Best Practices Alert By Linda Musthaler, Network World
February 26, 2010 12:06 AM ET
Linda Musthaler
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How many computers and associated peripheral devices are under your management scope? Five hundred? Five thousand? Fifty thousand? Whatever the number, it represents a lot of sophisticated circuitry housed in sturdy plastic and metal cases. You take great care in specifying the details of the equipment as it comes in the front door. Are you equally as careful when it's going out the back door at its end of life? Used equipment is full of toxic e-waste; do you know where it is ending up?

What does a real green data center look like?

The Basel Action Network (BAN wants every owner and user of computers and other electronic equipment to be aware of the final dispensation of the hazardous components inside their old equipment. BAN is a global organization that is confronting the issue of environmental injustice of toxic trade and its devastating impact on people and the land. BAN is working to prevent the dumping of e-waste in the world's poorest villages and promoting the green, toxic free and democratic design of consumer products.

I recently spoke with Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN, who wants to call attention to the issue of responsible recycling. Puckett says that many companies never consider what happens to their equipment once they consign it to a recycler or scrap dealer. In many instances, and especially when the recycling proposal is low-balled, the equipment is simply exported overseas, where it is recklessly handled in ways that harm people and the environment.

To see what happens to such equipment, view these photos or video. More videos are available from 60 Minutes here and from Frontline here. 

So what can you do about the problem? Two things, according to Puckett. First, choose your recycler carefully when decommissioning old equipment, and second, put pressure on your hardware manufacturers to adopt more environmentally friendly designs.

When it comes to choosing the company that will take away and recycle your e-waste, "think bigger than bean counting," Puckett says. Look beyond the dollar cost of the contract to understand precisely what the recycler is going to do with the hazardous components (like the circuit boards that contain mercury and lead). There are two industry standards for electronics recycling. Make sure your recycler agrees to follow one of the standards.

The first is called Responsible Recycling Practices for Electronic Recyclers, or R2 for short. R2 was originally developed by a broad group of stakeholders, including BAN, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and many of the country's largest electronics manufacturers.

The R2 standard is really more like a set of guidelines that provide responsible recycling practices for use in accredited certification programs that assess electronics recyclers' environmental, health and safety, and security practices. Recyclers that adhere to this set of practices are doing so on a voluntary basis. In addition, R2 is a U.S.-only standard that may conflict with legal standards in other countries.

Linda Musthaler is a principal analyst with Essential Solutions Corporation.

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