The days of tossing out corporate electronic waste like common trash are pretty much over. Environmental concerns and data security regulations are driving more companies to develop rigorous disposal policies. Yet there's more to the proper interment of IT equipment than many executives realize, and many companies still fail to handle their electronic waste wisely. Even those who think they're doing the right thing could find their technology trash coming back to haunt them in unexpected ways.
Progress has been made on many fronts. Zurich-based financial services company UBS AG, for example, has had a defined process for getting rid of its electronic waste since the early '90s. The company names specific employees to work with approved e-waste processors, says Urs Peter Steiger, risk management lead associate. UBS also tracks its waste, so it knows exactly what has been refurbished for the secondary market and what has been stripped down and recycled.
"There is a greater awareness among companies of their responsibilities, and there's a greater understanding of what the implications are," says Frances O'Brien, an analyst at Gartner.
Well, yes and no. Gartner surveyed executives at more than 200 companies last September and found that 71 percent had a formal policy for IT asset disposition. But every policy isn't necessarily a good policy.
For example, 19 percent said they donate their unwanted PCs to schools or nonprofit organizations. Good intention; bad policy, says O'Brien. Your company could be responsible if the nonprofit improperly disposes of the donated equipment or inadvertently releases sensitive data still residing on the equipment.
Costly and dangerous
Of those surveyed, 17 percent said their policy is to store old PCs. "There is still a lot stored in closets - industries' closets as well as private consumer closets," says Barbara Rembiesa, president of the US-based International Association of Information Technology Asset Managers.
That's not only a costly use of space; it's dangerous, says O'Brien. Companies often "cannibalize" the stored pieces, allowing components that might contain sensitive data to go missing, she explains.
While companies struggle to get e-trash disposal right, the problem is growing. There are 500 million obsolete computers in the US, and even today, only 10 percent of unwanted and obsolete computers are recycled, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a San Jose-based advocacy group.
Moreover, many companies don't realize how much material actually falls under the heading of "electronic waste", according to O'Brien. "A lot of the focus has been on PCs, but the issues become much more difficult when you start looking at flash memory cards and key-chain memory drives. There's fairly limited control on those things," she explains.
Other items that need special attention include mobile phones and handheld devices, as well as routers and even copiers, which today have memory that can contain sensitive information.
"Some of the smaller companies aren't even aware of the issues, or they don't have the skill sets to dispose of [e-waste] properly," O'Brien says.
Many midsize companies find themselves in that situation. Larger companies usually understand the issues but have a harder time tracking their trash because of the sheer volume of assets.
"Companies that want to protect themselves in this area know they have to have a good asset management strategy," says Jim O'Grady, who, as director of the Americas at HP Financial Services' Technology Value Solutions unit, manages HP's Technology Renewal Centre.
The need to track assets doesn't stop when they leave your building. Elizabeth Grossman, author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health (Island Press, 2006), says many companies can't account for where their discarded items end up.
A typical response is something like, "'I don't know; some guy named Bob picks it up,'" she says. "A ton of stuff is still getting exported, and it's not just coming from our country; it's coming from countries all over the world."
But the world is fighting back. International laws, US security regulations and public relations fiascoes have kept the issue in the public eye.
Environmental advocacy groups and the media have also had a significant effect on businesses because they've publicized the unsavoury demise of computers and other electronic products that end up in developing countries, where unprotected residents working in dangerous conditions disassemble the pieces.
"Companies don't want their branded equipment showing up in some documentary about bad exports," says Ted Smith, senior strategist at the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
There are other positive signs, including the actions of companies like Kaiser Permanente. The Californian-based health-care organization is a leader in handling its electronic waste, and it has the track record to prove it.
Over the past five years or so, Kaiser has disposed of a half-million assets weighing about 5.8 million kilograms, with none of the material ending up in landfills, says Rod Andreoff, executive director of business management at Kaiser's enterprise IT operation.
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