The Erren River in Taiwan is littered with electronic waste and fenced in by eight-foot walls of stripped circuit boards. Fish die within two minutes of entering the water, and the cancer rate for people living in the area is 27 percent, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Many electronics-recycling firms send old computers and appliances to third-world countries like Taiwan instead of dismantling and recycling them properly. In doing so, they endanger both the environment and the health of the neighboring communities. IT managers need to be aware of these risks and learn safer ways to recycle.
The Impact of E-Waste
Of all the electronic waste delivered to recyclers in North America, a staggering 50 to 80 percent is swiftly shipped to Asia or Africa, according to the BAN (Basel Action Network), a global toxic-trade watchdog organization. There, the waste is dumped, processed or burned, thereby choking the local streams, roads and air.
According to the Basel Convention , an international treaty signed by 170 countries and put in effect in 1992, this process is illegal. The United States gets around the treaty by being the only developed country that failed to ratify it. (Haiti and Afghanistan are the only other countries that failed to ratify it.) This has allowed irresponsible companies in the U.S. to continue exporting toxic materials while U.S. consumers and companies remain largely unaware of the problem.
E-waste is shipped to places as diverse as China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Singapore and Brazil. The U.S. isn't the only nation to blame — the European Union, South Korea, Japan and Australia are also sending some e-waste to developing nations .
The Coalition provides a photo gallery showing evidence of roadsides flanked by barricades of old computer monitors and children laboring on mountains of garbage for $1 a day to support their families.
Donating Used Computers
One of the greatest tragedies about the e-waste problem is that so many electronics and computers are tossed aside while still in working condition. Meanwhile, in California alone, over five million families cannot afford a computer, according to the ACCRC (Alameda County Computer Resource Center) .
Organizations like the ACCRC make it their mission to help match used equipment with the communities, schools and organizations who need the technology and don't have the resources to purchase it new. According to James Burgett, executive director of the ACCRC, the organization successfully diverts over 200,000 pounds of toxic waste per month and places 1,700 refurbished computers per year.
In addition, the ACCRC offers a technical training program to help disadvantaged individuals gain skills in computer refurbishment. Volunteers learn about electronics while they break down and reconfigure the equipment.
At Free Geek , a Portland, Ore.-based refurbisher, volunteers can also earn free computers by donating their time.
"Donations from larger companies — especially those with a frequent upgrade cycle — enable Free Geek volunteers to earn relatively new computers and have access to modern technology," said Ali Briggs, a volunteer coordinator.
Briggs said the organization is able to reuse a significant amount of donated hardware, and it accepts more types of computers than it turns away. Additionally, corporations can benefit because their donations are all tax-deductible.
Free Geek is one organization branching out into the greater United States, with new locations in major cities and smaller regions as well. But companies that have many locations across the United States may want to donate to larger, national nonprofits, which can work with regional partners to place used computers. One such example is the Cristina Foundation , which matches donations against a database that spans all 50 U.S. states, Canada and other locations worldwide.
However, these national organizations may accept fewer types of computers and parts. For example, the Cristina Foundation only takes certain Macs, Pentium IIIs and higher CPUs, and hardware components in working order. In contrast, the ACCRC and Free Geek will also take older parts to refurbish or recycle.
If your computers no longer qualify for donation or refurbishment, there are plenty of ways to find responsible organizations that recycle properly. Some places that accept donations will also recycle, but you may want to check out the following resources, too.
Some manufacturers will take back their used computers or equipment — including Dell , Hewlett-Packard Development Company LP, Intel Corp ., Toshiba Corp. and others. Check the Environmental Protection Agency's E-Cycle site for a list of manufacturers that will take back used electronics, along with organizations that accept donations and recycle.
BAN also provides a list of responsible recyclers , broken down by region. These recyclers have signed a rigorous pledge for sustainable and socially just electronics recycling, the Electronics Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship . The list is geared toward North America, but it also includes organizations serving Canada and South America.
Next Steps Toward Reducing E-Waste
The problem of e-waste isn't one that can be solved just by donating and recycling properly. The issue needs to be addressed at every phase in the electronics life cycle, from design and manufacturing to refurbishment and recycling.
Consumer watchdog groups are starting to push manufacturers to address environmental concerns and develop an awareness of their role in preventing toxic-electronics pollution. As a result, manufacturers like Intel have started to get involved in worldwide recycling projects and market themselves as strong on environmental concerns. Marketing isn't enough, however — it's up to the businesses buying technology to take such companies to task for their practices and make sure they really are going green.
Before purchasing new equipment, IT managers should consider the environmental impact of these components. To evaluate the vendors and their products, ask these questions before you buy to make sure the vendor is in compliance with guidelines from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition .
A Step Further
Organizations can also serve as advocates and educators by providing the following resources to employees:
These initiatives can help a company display its awareness and concern for environmental issues as well as its willingness to step in and be an authority on responsible recycling.
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