How to dispose of IT hardware without hurting the environment

Find certified recyclers and disposal firms in order to know that the retirement of your old electronics gear is handled safely.

garbage collection trash truck
Angelo Tsirekas (CC BY 3.0)

Many enterprises don’t think much about where their obsolete IT gear winds up, but it’s possible to be green-minded, not bust the budget, and even benefit a little from proper disposal. Here is how.

Go back to where you bought

The first option to consider is returning the equipment the vendor or reseller you bought it from, says Susan Middleton, research director, financing strategies, at IDC. “Every year we ask customers, ‘How do you handle end-of-lease?’ Overwhelmingly, they return to vendor or partner who are better equipped to handle recycling,” she says.

Vendors often give a fair-market buyout for the devices that can go toward new products, Middleton says. “The big players like IBM and HPE do a great job because they can clean them up and resell them, and the facilities to do that are pretty big,” she says.

Vet disposal firms

If that’s not an option,  and you have to find a disposal company – an IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) service – on your own, the first thing to check is whether it is properly certified, says Mike Satter, president of IT asset disposal and data-center-decommissioning provider OceanTech. Proper certification starts with a Responsible Recycling (R2) certification.

R2s are administered by Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), a non-profit organization dedicated to the responsible reuse, repair, and recycling of electronic products. It sets the R2 standard and audits ITAD providers that carry the standard to make sure they are in compliance with the standard. Being responsible means creating a paper trail that shows the electronic waste – which contains heavy metals including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, indium, lead, mercury, nickel, and thallium, and are toxic in high enough doses – is reused, recovered or recycled.

Some disposal firms dump old gear in general landfills or export them to other countries where regulations aren’t as strong.  

“Any ITAD service provider that does not carry an R2 certification cannot fully guarantee zero landfill or zero export of materials,” says Satter. “Many recyclers will say they are compliant, but without verified certifications you’re taking a chance.”

Mark Dobson, IT asset disposal security specialist with NextUse, a firm that removes and the resells second-hand IT assets, cites six disposal certifications that companies should look for: R2,  e-Stewards,  NAID, NAID AAA (which has greater certification of regulatory compliance), ISO 14001, and ISO 18001. “R2 would be the floor,” he says.

Briefly, here’s what these certifications do.

  • e-Stewards is a standard set by the Basel Action Network in Sweden, which recognizes electronics recyclers that adhere to the most stringent environmentally and socially responsible practices when recovering hazardous electronic materials. In particular it is focused on making sure it was not shipped off to poor countries, where underage workers were exposed to toxic materials in careless work conditions.
  • NAID and NAID AAA certification are set by The National Association of Information Destruction, a standards body that sets rules for the proper disposal of information devices, like hard drives.
  • ISO 14001 is a management framework for organizations to “achieve the intended outcomes of its environmental management system, which provide value for the environment, the organization itself and interested parties.” Outcomes of the framework should enhance environmental performance, fulfill compliance obligations and achieve environmental objectives. ISO is the International Organization of Standards, a global standards body.
  • ISO 18001 is the international standard for health and safety management systems.

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