Recycling – A Key Part of a Green IT Strategy

Just about everywhere you look these days you are sure to see companies looking to make the IT industry “Green”. While the focus tends to be on reducing consumption of power as a way to offset your carbon footprint, recycling is still an important component of any comprehensive green IT strategy.

If your old electronics components are still in working condition you may be able to donate them so that their useful lifespan is maximized. However, if you have broken electronics you must recycle them properly so that these toxic objects don’t end up in a landfill. Electronics contain lead, mercury, other heavy metals, hexavalent chromium, and flame retardants such as Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and who knows what else. Recycling electronics waste helps keep these elements out of landfills and disposes of these items properly.

Yesterday my son and I tried to get in on the eCycling action and take a few monitors, old computers, and other electronics odds-and-ends to a regional computer recycling event. The free electronics recycling event was sponsored by Denver’s Local NBC station (9News), Waste Management, Comcast and LG Electronics. It was a highly publicized event where they would take everything you had and monitors were free to recycle. The event was planned to run from 7AM to noon and we showed up at 11AM. We were told that their 25-semi trucks were full to capacity at about 9AM in the morning. Not bad considering all that stuff will be disposed of properly. (See the picutres).

It was great to see such a great turnout because it shows that the awareness of electronics recycling is growing. However, I wonder what those folks who were turned away did with their electronics. As for us we went to a recycling center closer to our house but it did cost us $7 for each of the monitors and we had to pay $1/lb for the bag of alkaline batteries I have been saving for a few years. Computer monitors typically have a fee to recycle because the contain Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) contain large amounts of lead which would be very toxic in a landfill or in our ground water supply. After yesterday I feel comfortable knowing that my karma is in check since all that electronics and batteries didn’t end up in the dump.

Currently, most states have state-wide electronics waste (e-waste) programs and legislature to back this up. These State programs work in either of two ways. Either the electronics are taxed at sale and that tax money provides the funding for the recycling programs (Advance Recovery Fee model) or the states require the manufacturers to support the recycling of the equipment (Producer Responsibility model). Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has programs for eCycling. If a company disposes of their IT waste improperly they can face fines of over $25,000 from the EPA.

Some of the largest electronics manufacturers are taking their green initiatives seriously and considering all aspects of the equation. Cisco is one of those companies that are establishing a comprehensive strategy. Sun Microsystems is also a leader in Eco Responsibility within the IT industry. Cisco has established their “Takeback Recycling Program” which will help companies recycle their old networking equipment. HP also has a similar program that takes all kinds of computer waste. Many other manufacturers have similar programs which are great for companies who are purchasing new product because they can recycle the old components that the same time.

When I was in college I had a summer job servicing PCs for a very small PC sales and support company. One of my tasks that summer was to help with the recycling of computer waste that was the result of NBI going of our business. NBI was a Boulder-based manufacturer of early generation word-processing software. When they folded all their old computer equipment was dumped in a salvage yard outside Superior Colorado. I spent a week sorting through the mess and creating piles of stuff to organize the parts. Besides getting very sun-burned in the heat of this outdoor computer graveyard I got an early glimpse into computer recycling. I gathered up all the abandoned power cords so that we could clean them up and resell them. I removed all the boards from the computers to have their chips removed and resold as refurbished chips. I broke off the gold connectors of the boards to have the gold reclaimed. The rest of the metal computer cases were used for scrap metal. We made a pretty good profit on my week’s worth of work and we helped clean up the environment.

Even if you “do the right thing” and recycle your old electronics may still end up contributing to a global waste problem. The old electronics may end up in developing countries who are trying to refurbish or repurpose the electronic waste. It is estimated that 50% to 80% of all electronics waste collected in North America for recycling ends up in landfills in Asia. Several years ago The Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) published a report with this finding. Since 2002 the problem presumably has gotten worse.

Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute, Please Recycle!


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