IT Recycling: The Next Frontier

Laws and policies concerning electronic waste are evolving rapidly. Computer components are hazardous due to heavy metals and plastics but trying to get rid of them means entering an uncharted regulatory minefield, where environmental concerns may end up being the least of your worries. Discover the most cost and time efficient way of electronic recycling, while eliminating compliance liabilities and maintaining social responsibilities.

Old computers never die. No, they just sit there until you get rid of them. Gartner estimates that 800 million PCs will be replaced in the next five years and 374 million of them will simply be dumped into landfills. Unfortunately, a monitor’s cathode ray tube can contain more than eight pounds of toxic lead, and many municipal landfills no longer accept them. The circuit boards in the CPU, meanwhile, contain gold and other metals of interest to scrap dealers. If you just let the first taker haul them away without any sort of background check or research, tomorrow’s newspaper headlines might be about units, which belong to your organization, being dismantled by child labor in Africa.

In the US, complying with environmental regulations covering the disposal of electronics (e-waste) cannot be relied on for protection, since there are hardly any regulations in the area. Laws have been passed only at the state level, and so far only in California, Maine, Maryland, and Washington. The bellwether example would appear to be California, where retailers collect a small recycling fee for every monitor, TV, and flat panel sold. This money is remitted to the state, which uses it to subsidize recyclers for every unit they process. In Maryland, registration fees from vendors are pooled to create a recycling fund. In Washington, vendors must eventually either set up their own take-back programs or join a generic plan. In Maine, local governments record what units they collect for recycling and invoice the vendors. Other states and even municipalities are considering similar measures. “It’s creating a nightmare for IT managers, to know what to do in a particular state,” complained Frances O’Brien, analyst at Gartner, a research firm. “There could eventually be hundreds of pieces of e-waste legislation on the books.”

The lack of e-waste legislation in the US is embarrassing especially in contrast with the state of regulation in Europe. The EU Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive will take effect in January, which regulates the disposal of e-waste. Already in effect is the EU Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive which governs substances often found in e-waste, such as cadmium, mercury, and hexavalent chromium. Gartner estimates 70 percent of European requests for proposals include disposal provisions. Computer vendors expected to take back the units and handle disposal after the buyers are done with them. On the other hand, moving a retired PC from one European country to another can be a paperwork nightmare, noted David Daoud, analyst at IDC, a market research firm in Framingham, MA.

But in terms of good and bad news, the unsettled state of environmental regulations is the good news when it comes to e-waste disposal, which leaves the field open to creative solutions, noted O’Brien. The bad news is that using sloppy disposal methods nearly guarantees violating various data privacy protection laws, such as HIPAA, Gramm-Leach-Bliley, plus California SB 1386 and its clones in a couple dozen other states.

“What about the data that resides on all those devices?” she asked. Buying used hard drives on eBay and discovering sensitive information on them is not even news anymore, she noted. The basic problem is that simply erasing the files on a hard drive actually leaves those files intact and retrievable. Special sanitizing software that overwrites the sensitive files multiple times may take hours on a large drive, O’Brien explained. Degaussing can erase a drive in seconds but may damage sensitive chips, making the machine unusable and reducing it to scrap, she added. Both sanitizing and degaussing typically erase the operating system, meaning that it has to be reinstalled if the machine is to be resold, adding labor time to the process. Simply shredding the hard drives may be the simplest answer, and many recycling vendors offer a shredding service, including picking up the units with an armored car. But removing the hard drive means the machine is unusable and cannot be resold, she warned.

The financial impact of making the machine unusable is the cost, which is about $25 for having it hauled away as e-waste, whereas a resalable machine (which typically has to be less than three years old) might bring in $25, explained Daoud. The difference will seem far from trivial for an organization faced with retiring thousands of machines, especially if the front-office accountants are demanding reductions in the total cost of ownership, he indicated. O’Brien calculates that the cost of disposing a single computer is about $130, which includes disk sanitizing, testing, removal, packing, shipping, and various administrative costs. The money made from resale can help offset this disposal cost.

By proceeding prudently, sources agreed that it is possible for an IT organization to not only uphold its unspoken obligation to dispose of discarded hardware in an environmentally responsible fashion, but to turn the practice into a revenue stream. The trick is to pick the right recycling partner, one with acceptable disposal and data protection practices, who’s willing to offer money for resalable machines. “You’ll need to do a lot of homework concerning the environmental impact of your IT base, and choose a partner who can service all your physical locations,” Daoud said. “And the partner needs to be able to guarantee that the data left on the systems is going nowhere.”

“Examine the recycler’s business practices and see what they do with the hardware,” urged O’Brien. “Make sure they are not doing anything bad, like using convicts, or sending the hardware to Africa to be stripped by people making a dollar an hour. Many of my clients say they’ve paid someone to haul stuff away, only to find that it’s been dumped someplace further down the road. If the recyclers are offering a price that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Find out what process they follow from the time they receive an asset from you, to the time they are finished with it, with a chain of custody you can track,” she added. “Make sure they do what they say they do. If your hardware does end up somewhere bad, make sure you can say that you had a process map that you relied on.”

Finally, don’t count on donating old machines to charity, since charities are not exactly desperate for them, and may see no reason to take them off your hands. “In the US, the donation channel is getting saturated,” said Daoud. “The recipients are fully aware that technology is improving so rapidly that systems coming through donation tend to be obsolete, and they will be faced with disposing of the machines themselves after a year.”


Lamont Wood is a freelance writer based in San Antonio, Texas, who has been covering the technology arena for more than two decades. He can be reached at lwood(at)

This article originally appeared at Copyright 2008, 1105 Media Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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