Tech Trash

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.

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.

Tracking assets

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.

Role model

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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That kind of achievement doesn't happen by chance. Kaiser's asset management team of 14 full-time professionals accounts for all of the company's IT assets throughout their lifecycles. When equipment reaches the end of its intended usefulness, team members follow set policies to determine whether it should be recommissioned for a different use or decommissioned entirely.

If the equipment is decommissioned, Kaiser performs US Department of Defense-level wipes to remove all data and then hands the equipment off to Redemtech, an Ohio-based provider of technology change management services.

Redemtech sends regular reports to Kaiser so it can track which assets were refurbished for the secondary market and which were disassembled for recycling. Andreoff won't disclose Kaiser's budget for e-waste disposal, but he says it's "substantial".

"It's not an easy thing to do. It requires investment of money and in process and procedure," Andreoff says. "It requires an investment in staff, and it requires a commitment to do it right."

On another front, manufacturers are increasingly working with companies to take back equipment for refurbishing or recycling.

"We'd rather be in charge of it, because we know the product; we know we can do a good job with it," says David Douglas, vice president of eco-responsibility at Sun Microsystems. "And we can get money back through the process, and we're able to pour the money back into engineering and make it better," he adds.

Sun recycles about 45 percent of the material it takes back, and it reuses about 50 percent, Douglas says. And many manufacturers are thinking about all these issues before their equipment even hits the market. They're designing with disassembly and environmental impact in mind, Douglas says, which makes recycling easier and removes hazardous materials from the products altogether.

Sidebar: Global trash talk

International pressure is pushing companies to do the right thing with their e-trash. Here are some examples.

-- The European Union's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive and Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive put more responsibilities on manufacturers to take back their equipment and reduce the use of hazardous materials in their products.

-- China's new Management Methods for Controlling Pollution Caused by Electronic Information Products Regulation establishes frameworks for substance restrictions, pre-market certifications and labeling and information disclosure requirements for electronics and IT products.

-- Basel Convention participants have agreed to stop exporting hazardous waste, including e-waste, to developing countries. (The US hasn't ratified the ban.)

-- US laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the California Security Breach Notification Law have established privacy and data protection standards to push companies to safely dispose of their IT assets as a way to safeguard the data that they contain.

Sidebar: Don't pass the buck

Stakeholders, including manufacturers, recyclers, advocacy groups and the US Environmental Protection Agency, have been working to formalize best practices and certify e-waste handlers. Meanwhile, here are some questions you should ask any company that seeks to haul your tech trash:

  • What is your capacity? Can you handle the scale of material I need to dispose of?

  • How will the materials be tracked?

  • Will I get regular reports and audits to guarantee that you are doing what you promised?

  • How is confidential company information handled? How are hard drives sanitized?

  • Do you remove corporate asset tags?

  • Who bears the risk of loss for equipment in transit?

  • Do you sell equipment overseas? If so, is it stipulated that sale is for reuse only? How do you guarantee that it's actually reused and not just trashed?

  • Can I visit your facilities?

  • Will you provide my company with indemnification?

Sources: Gina Chiarella, chief operating officer, WeRecycle Inc.; Frances O'Brien, analyst, Gartner Inc.; Chip Slack, chairman and CEO, Intechra Holding Corp.