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How green is your PC (disposal policy)?

Filthy McNasty Inc.

Another day, another survey proving how crap companies are in dealing with disposal of unwanted computer hardware.

The results are mostly predictable: current disposal of obsolete corporate IT equipment is badly done; many companies are unaware of upcoming legislation targeted at this issue; and few use refurbished goods.

The survey, undertaken by computer company Selway Moore, reveals that 34 per cent of companies currently scrap unused IT goods, a policy that raises environmental concerns (CRT monitors, for example, are especially poisonous, with high levels of cadmium and mercury).

Dumping PCs into landfill sites is expensive, unless you use an illegal fly-tipper, but in the UK, is currently legal, if very naughty, especially when residue from noxious material seeps into the water table.

Further, 65 per cent of companies do not consider refurbished equipment when upgrading their systems. But then would you?

WEEE will obey

Currently, the EU is preparing regulation called the Waste, Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), which will include a range of guidelines for the disposal of electronic goods. So far it has been approved as a draft law, but it is uncertain when it will come into effect.

With 52 per cent of companies, the IT director is lumped with the task of getting rid of it all. Unsurprisingly, Selway Moore recommends outsourcing the task to a specialist partner.

Under WEEE, producers will be responsible for taking back and recycling electrical and electronic goods (or at least part of the process), which it hopes will encourage them to "adapt the design of their products to the prerequisites of sound waste management". Are we talking cardboard computers here? Perhaps Cisco could rejuvenate its sales by supplying a line of routers that slowly biodegrades back to (non-toxic) dust over its lifecycle?

The Selway Moore survey follows a report from the US that the Electronic Industries Alliance (backed by companies like Canon, HP, Sony and others) will dish out about $100,000 into studies which will hopefully determine how best to dispose of used electronics.

The issue has arisen around the supposed vast volume of electric gizmos just waiting to be flung out the back door, following the decade-long consumer purchasing boom.

Clean Hands

Interestingly, WEEE places the responsibility at the hands of original manufacturers and resellers to assume responsibility for kit when their customers have finished with it. Perhaps the EIA announcement can be seen as an attempt from US manufacturers to head off any attempts to impose similar legislation in their country.

Most vendors do seem to be in favour of something being done about recycling, or being seen to be doing something about recycling, even if, as the Selway Moore survey, shows, their corporate customers are unlikely to care either way if their IT supplier is green or the finest shade of Asbestos blue.

Here are some fine official recommendations for customers on what to do, such as Dell, IBM and others.

There are, of course, a whole string of companies that deal with the recycling of obsolete electronic goods, but these services are relatively expensive and when a company's MD is faced with the options of: dump it (cost = free) or recycle it (cost = a lot more than dumping it), it is easy to predict the result. At least until WEEE forces corporates to behave.

Most reputable recycling companies in the UK are members of ICER, the Industry Council of Electronics Recycling.

But what is to be done with the millions of usuable secondhand PCs out there? Depending on who you speak to, a variety of alternate suggestions are raised, mostly revolving around shipping them off too: third world countries; needy children; charities; Afghanistan, etc.

This, unfortunately, is not too easy to do, raising the issues of who exactly will fit the bill, software licensing conflicts - add in the cost of MS software and the boxes begin to look bloody expensive -
and what will happen when the products become obsolete for even those sources.

The open source community naturally recommends converting ancient systems into Linux Web servers and other suchlike, but this will probably help few households and is not a sustainable strategy for corporations.

Whatever the solution, the problem remains and like many other environmental issues, will continue to struggle to make itself heard to the world at large. ®

Related links

Some UK organisations that facilitate the donation of used computer hardware
The Electronic Industries Alliance
The Community Recycling Networks' Recycle-IT! project

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