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The E-Waste Disposal Story
Environmental Integrity

The days when repairing, instead of replacing, broken electronic equipment was the norm have long ceased to exist. At the earliest sign of dysfunction or the slightest indication of wear and tear, the option of choice is out with the old and in with the new. Electronic equipment becomes obsolete at the drop of the hat and is considered of no use, destined for the dumpster. The equipment in question is called e-waste.

This creates a predicament because there are multiple hazards associated with e-waste disposal. If a company does not take e-waste seriously, and does not dispose of its electronic materials in an appropriate manner, the company can be sanctioned by the government, which certainly isn’t going to do much for the company’s reputation as a socially accountable business citizen.

When e-waste is not dealt with correctly, the company can face liability issues, including breaches of private data and non-regulatory compliance, employees injured from exposure to toxins as well as causing environmental damage when inappropriately disposing of hazardous waste.

What many don’t realize is that there are veiled dangers in e-waste. When you toss your cell phone or computer into the trash you are dumping potential toxins into a landfill. Computer monitors are the biggest single factor resulting in lead contamination in municipal solid waste streams. Cell phones contain precious metals such as gold, silver, copper and palladium. LCDs contain mercury.

Regrettably, only a tiny percentage of electronic devices is recycled. Instead they end up in a landfill, which creates potential problems because the heavy metal in the devices can leach out and contaminate ground water and soil. In fact, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition figures that nearly three-quarters of the heavy metals that end up in landfills are the result of discarded electronic devices.

Laptop and desktop computers are discarded at the astounding rate of approximately 112,000 per day, which appreciably lags behind the disposal of cells phone at close to 384,000 per day. That’s a lot of e-waste, and this is just in the United States. Nearly three million tons of electronic equipment are tossed annually, points out the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.)

When computers are ditched, it is vital that they first be checked and cleared of any confidential and/or sensitive information that they contain. Disposal of other types of equipment, including printers, photocopiers, digital cameras, iPads and iphones or anything that has memory must undergo the same type of scrutiny and be cleared of all sensitive and/or confidential information before being disposed of.

The federal government has stepped in and mandates that any company that generates more than 220 pounds of electronic waste a month cannot put these discarded devices into landfills but must recycle them or consider them as hazardous waste and treat them as such. Additionally, items that contain mercury cannot be disposed of in landfills nor can batteries. Companies can no longer toss CRTs or cathode ray tubes into landfills. They must be suitably recycled.

Companies as well as individuals need to think twice before recklessly disposing of e-waste. Options include recycling the equipment. If it cannot be fixed it can be broken down, and its components can be used for some other purpose. The metals and recycled raw materials can be retrieved from the device and re-purposed. Consider refurbishing the device so that it can be re-used. If you must dispose of the device make sure that you are doing it in a safe and legal manner.

However, if you do recycle and reuse devices you have to make sure that the hard drives are wiped clean, and that you are not breaching confidentiality.

If you have enlisted a recycling agent to dispose of your e-waste determine that the person is reputable. The International Association of Electronics Recyclers as well as other organizations can verify what the guidelines are for disposing of e-waste and will conduct audits to discern if recyclers are abiding by the law. If you hand off your e-waste to an unscrupulous recycler you have not solved the problem but compounded it. You have simply passed the buck.


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