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How to dispose of IT hardware without hurting the environment

How to dispose of IT hardware without hurting the environment

Find certified recyclers in order to know the retirement of old electronics gear is handled safely

Credit: Dreamstime

Many enterprises don’t think much about where obsolete IT gear winds up, but it’s possible to be green-minded, not bust the budget, and even benefit a little from proper disposal. Here is how.

The first option to consider is returning the equipment to the vendor or reseller where it was bought it from, says Susan Middleton, research director, financing strategies at IDC.

“Every year we ask customers, ‘How do you handle end-of-lease?’ Overwhelmingly, they return to vendor or partner who are better equipped to handle recycling,” she says.

Vendors often give a fair-market buyout for the devices that can go toward new products, Middleton says. “The big players like IBM and Hewlett Packard Enterprise do a great job because they can clean them up and resell them, and the facilities to do that are pretty big,” she says.

Vet disposal firms

If that’s not an option, and users have to find a disposal company – an IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) service – the first thing to check is whether it is properly certified, says Mike Satter, CEO of IT asset disposal and data centre-decommissioning provider OceanTech. Proper certification starts with a Responsible Recycling (R2) certification.

R2s are administered by Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), a non-profit organisation dedicated to the responsible reuse, repair, and recycling of electronic products. It sets the R2 standard and audits ITAD providers that carry the standard to make sure they are in compliance with the standard.

Being responsible means creating a paper trail that shows the electronic waste – which contains heavy metals including arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, indium, lead, mercury, nickel, and thallium, and are toxic in high enough doses – is reused, recovered or recycled.

Some disposal firms dump old gear in general landfills or export them to other countries where regulations aren’t as strong.

“Any ITAD service provider that does not carry an R2 certification cannot fully guarantee zero landfill or zero export of materials,” says Satter. “Many recyclers will say they are compliant, but without verified certifications you’re taking a chance.”

Mark Dobson, IT asset disposal security specialist with NextUse, a firm that removes and the resells second-hand IT assets, cites six disposal certifications that companies should look for: R2e-Stewards, NAID, NAID AAA (which has greater certification of regulatory compliance), ISO 14001, and ISO 18001. “R2 would be the floor,” he says.

Briefly, here’s what these certifications do.

  • e-Stewards is a standard set by the Basel Action Network in Sweden, which recognises electronics recyclers that adhere to the most stringent environmentally and socially responsible practices when recovering hazardous electronic materials. In particular it is focused on making sure it was not shipped off to poor countries, where underage workers were exposed to toxic materials in careless work conditions
  • NAID and NAID AAA certification are set by The National Association of Information Destruction, a standards body that sets rules for the proper disposal of information devices, like hard drives
  • ISO 14001 is a management framework for organisations to “achieve the intended outcomes of its environmental management system, which provide value for the environment, the organisation itself and interested parties.” Outcomes of the framework should enhance environmental performance, fulfill compliance obligations and achieve environmental objectives. ISO is the International Organisation of Standards, a global standards body
  • ISO 18001 is the international standard for health and safety management systems

Dobson says ITAD companies that do it right are using one or more of the certification standards for data security and responsible recycling, and getting and maintaining those standard takes substantial initial and on-going investment in facilities, equipment, hardware, software, personnel, policies and procedures.

“When those vendors charge more for their services, it is to cover those expenses, not to be excessively profitable,” he says. “Companies that do it the cheap way are skipping many if not all of those investments.”

If an e-waste company says they will take retired equipment for free, consider that a red flag, says Satter. “Compliant e-waste companies have to hire vetted/credentialed employees, which must pass background checks to ensure compliance is delivered,” Satter says. “All of that costs money.”

But the additional cost of using a certified company is minor. “We’re not talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Dobson.

“Even on the biggest job, it’s a few thousand dollars difference between the right way and the cheap way. For your average client, you’re talking thousands of dollars between the best vendors possible and totally half-assing it with the cheapest vendor that’s not operating in anyone’s best interest but their own.”


State environmental laws about illegal disposal are mainly enforced by state attorneys general. In addition, various federal agencies enforce violations of their agency's laws and regulations.

Satter thinks enforcement needs to be tougher. “It will take the federal government to create extreme enforcement measures to ensure our e-waste is handled properly. The CEO or owner of companies should be arrested if they violate illegal e-waste dumping laws or knowingly exports e-waste to developing countries,” he says.

In one case, two executives of a Seattle e-waste recycling company got 28 months in jail for improper disposal of e-waste. In that case, it was e-Stewards that got wise to their illegal activities and turned them in to the Washington state AG.

But that’s an exception, not the rule. Dobson says he sees very little enforcement. “The regulations are in place but rarely enforced, and penalties are not incentivising. A lot of this is viewed as the cost of doing business. They build the fines for if they get caught into the cost of disposal,” he says.

Fines for illegal dumping of old IT assets, are determined by the size of the violation, the clean-up cost, and the guidelines in the state or federal law. AT&T got one of the largest fines on record in 2014 for illegal disposal of e-waste, socked with a $52 million fine. Two years later, Apple got a spanking of $450,000 for its own illegal dumping.

Middleton says first and foremost companies should ask for a paper trail to verify proper handling and disposal of assets from the moment they are picked up. “Ask about who certifies that your [disposal] partners are doing it correctly. When you don’t get a good answer, you walk away,” she says.

But she says she thinks most firms are legit. “Anyone that’s lasted in this business isn’t shady. The majority that have been around a while are responsible,” says Middleton.

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