Old PCs Can Come Back to Haunt You

By Lisa Vaas  |  Print this article Print


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Opinion: Don't even think of tossing that old machine in the trash. Corporate accountability for electronics disposal stretches much further than you may think, and laws are only getting more stringent.

Thanks to Dell and HP, the world got a little cleaner this week.

Both computer makers this week announced programs in which they will be recycling consumers' PCs for free. HP has teamed up with Office Depot to offer consumers the ability to drop off unwanted electronics at any of Office Depot's more than 850 stores in the continental United States.

For its part, Dell will actually come to your house and pick up your unlovable electronic paperweight—when you purchase a new Dell PC, that is.

Granted, the programs aren't perfect. For one thing, they're both temporary. Dell's program starts next week—that's the week of July 19—and has an as-yet undetermined end date, according to a Dell spokeswoman. Click here for details on the program.

HP's recycling program is running from July 18 through Sept. 6. Click here for details.

Not perfect, but at least they're doing something. Which, unfortunately, can't be said for many corporations.

Frances O'Brien, a Gartner analyst, tells me that out of 177 companies the analyst firm surveyed in October, about 30 percent described their method of disposing of electronic waste as being quite simple: Namely, they toss it in the trash.

Now, 177 companies isn't statistically significant, O'Brien noted, but c'mon—even so, we're talking about a survey population that represents stewardship of more than 10 million PCs. That means that a great many PCs are getting tossed into landfills.

And what are they doing in those landfills? They're leaking and corroding their guts, which in general consist of some 1,000 materials, including highly toxic substances such as lead and cadmium in computer-circuit boards; lead oxide and barium in computer monitors' cathode ray tubes; mercury in switches and flat screens; and brominated flame retardants on printed-circuit boards, cables and plastic casings.

Put these substances together, and the toxicity of the resulting mixtures often aren't known or understood. Ever read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring?" If so, you know what I mean when I say that the mixture of chemicals has a noxious synergy. You don't just get the nastiness of substance A plus the nastiness of substance B—no, you get a new substance C, the effects of which often are completely unknown.

Meanwhile, workers in the chip-manufacturing industry report cancer clusters, birth defects and miscarriages. Computer-recycling employees are being found to have high levels of dangerous chemicals in their blood.

Next page: It's not just the environment; it's the liability issue.

This isn't merely something for environmentally conscious, goodnik liberals to cluck about. This is something for every IT department, every CIO and every corporate lawyer to sweat. For this is an issue that is gaining the attention of legislatures across the country.

At this point, something like 26 states have pending legislation on electronic waste. For its part, California now has a bill on the books. It takes effect this fall, imposing a fee on computer monitors and TVs in order to fund a recycling program.

Want to know what legislation might be headed your way? Check out the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition's interactive map of the United States to ascertain what electronic-waste legislation is pending in the state(s) in which your company does business.

What about federal legislation? Click here to read more about a computer-recycling bill pending in Congress.

The map also directs users to local organizations that are working on e-waste, as well as organizations and cities that have adopted resolutions on e-waste, electronics take-back programs and "green" procurement.

The California law also regulates shipment overseas for disposal. Legislation of this type is vitally relevant to enterprises because it means that it's not good enough to merely call up a PC recycling service to deal with your discarded electronic equipment.

According to Robert Houghton, president of the technology recycling firm Redemtech, the majority of PCs accepted for recycling in this country are being exported to developing countries. We have the economics of recycling to thank for this. After all, it's extremely advantageous if no one asks questions when a firm sends a PC to a developing country, where low-cost labor is used to extract valuable materials and the remaining PC carcass is simply dumped.

China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Eastern European countries and African countries are the dumping grounds, of course—developing countries with insufficient laws to protect their environments and their workforces.

Many organizations pick a recycling vendor who ships the material overseas and whose services cost barely anything because it's cheaper that way, O'Brien said. That recycler will go ahead and dump the PC equipment somewhere else.

While the company may think they got away cheap, they're in fact still on the hook, since they didn't secure an audit trail. The recycling firm may dump that stuff in a field or leave it in a warehouse. It goes belly-up, and all of a sudden the EPA is on the company's doorstep.

Then come the fines. You don't have to live in California for this liability to hit you. Read up on CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, aka the Superfund Law. CERCLA empowers the EPA to identify contaminated sites, to pin the blame on those responsible and to seek compensation to pay for the cleanup.

It doesn't matter if you yourself dumped the PCs in the field out back or whether you used a third party to dump them somewhere else—you're still accountable.

Beyond the fines and the potential public embarrassment of being seen as environmentally irresponsible, there are other dangers lurking in the depths of the closet where your company shoves all of its unused electronic equipment. Namely, those dusty machines still have data that can come back to haunt you.

"You take it out of service, put it in a room for some later date, and some later date never comes," O'Brien told me. "In the meantime, the machine gets cannibalized. You say, 'I'll take that hard drive and put it in my personal machine.'" In doing so, the data from unwiped drives is out there. That's a potential risk to both enterprise privacy and enterprise security and, once again, it represents potential liability, this time in the face of laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley.

Read more here about the importance of data destruction.

What's a well-intentioned organization to do? Find a reputable PC recycler that offers a waiver of liability to safeguard your company against running afoul of regulations. Do your due diligence and make sure you have an audit trail of where the equipment went—not just the outsourcer who took it, but the second, third and however many more stops it made on its way downstream.

All of us in this industry have benefited from the Information Age. Let's make sure we don't poison the world in the process.

Check out eWEEK.com's Desktop & Notebook Center at http://desktop.eweek.com for the latest news in desktop and notebook computing.

Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for eWEEK.com and also serves as editor of the Database topic center. Since 1995, she has also been a Webcast news show anchorperson and a reporter covering the IT industry. She has focused on customer relationship management technology, IT salaries and careers, effects of the H1-B visa on the technology workforce, wireless technology, security, and, most recently, databases and the technologies that touch upon them. Her articles have appeared in eWEEK's print edition, on eWEEK.com, and in the startup IT magazine PC Connection. Prior to becoming a journalist, Vaas experienced an array of eye-opening careers, including driving a cab in Boston, photographing cranky babies in shopping malls, selling cameras, typography and computer training. She stopped a hair short of finishing an M.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Emerson College. She runs two open-mic reading series in Boston and currently keeps bees in her home in Mashpee, Mass.

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