Are your old computers poisoning people in third world countries?

* As you dispose of old computers, it's important to work with an ethical electronics recycler

Many business organizations use electronic recycling service providers to dispose of old computer equipment. The recyclers are supposed to meet stringent laws and guidelines for recycling hazardous materials like lead and mercury found in the equipment - but this doesn't always happen. You can be assured your e-waste is handled and recycled properly by using a certified e-Steward service provider.

Most companies are adopting Green IT initiatives these days. This includes reducing the power consumption of the data center; enabling workers to telecommute and hold virtual meetings in order to reduce their transportation and travel needs and thus their carbon footprint; and recycling used electronic equipment that the company no longer needs. All of these activities are admirable efforts intended to lessen the impact of business computing on our environment.

But when it comes to recycling old computers, “green” practices may not always be what they seem to be on the surface. It’s possible that your recycling service provider might simply be shifting the environmental hazard from one country to another, and this could come back to haunt your company some day.

A recent news story on the CBS television show 20/20 reveals what the video producers call “the electronic wasteland.” This show follows the disturbing path that some of our electronic waste (e-waste) – including cell phones, televisions, VCRs and DVD players, and of course, computers and peripherals – takes after it goes to the recycling center.

CBS reporter Scott Pelley traces a shipping container of CRT monitors from a recycling center in Colorado to Hong Kong. From there the container goes to a huge e-waste scrap yard in a rural area of mainland China, where workers attempt to recover valuable elements such as lead, mercury and gold from the old equipment. The workers have absolutely no protection from the dangerous materials. They openly burn electronic components, causing the release of highly toxic gases into the air and liquids into the nearby river. The scene is one large environmental – and human – disaster.

As a corporate citizen, why should you care, and what does this have to do with your own IT department?

More than likely, your organization has a process for the disposal of old computer equipment that may include sending items to a recycling service provider. Do you know precisely what happens to that equipment once it leaves your dock? Can you validate that any components that are targeted for recycling are handled in an environmentally responsible way?

Robert Houghton, CEO of asset recovery company Redemtech, estimates that three-quarters of large companies have a policy to do responsible waste disposal, including e-waste. A typical policy might require any service provider that handles a company’s e-waste to do so legally and with minimal impact on the environment, and to help reduce the company’s exposure to environmental liabilities. According to Houghton, recycling service providers don’t always follow those policies.

For example, in the case of the CRTs that made their way to China, U.S. federal law was broken. (Because of the high lead content, it’s illegal to transport broken CRTs outside the U.S.) Yet the 20/20 video segment clearly shows computer monitors that could, conceivably, be traced back to the original owners (i.e., American businesses) by the serial numbers. If that were to happen, it would be a public relations problem, with the potential to harm a company’s reputation and brand. (Imagine the headlines: “XYZ Corporation sends illegal e-waste to China; birth defects soar among villagers who process the materials.”)

As you dispose of old computers, it’s important to work with an ethical electronics recycler. There’s a new program from the Basal Action Network that certifies companies that process e-waste. The e-Steward Certification is an accredited 3rd party audited certification system that provides assurance that these recyclers are the most responsible and effective in the industry. This new certification for social and environmental responsibility in the e-waste recycling and asset management sector is the first of its kind anywhere. To see a list of accredited e-Stewards in your area, click here.

No person or company wants to think of its disposed property being harmful to people or the environment. And no company wants to bring a spotlight on itself for having its equipment sitting in illegal landfills or scrap heaps. Be sure your asset disposal team is working with an e-Steward so that your electronic waste can be handled and recycled properly.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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