We are all curious — and many of us are concerned — about the secret life of used electronics. The level of response I received to "The 3 rules of recycling electronics waste" and the questions it generated showed that there's a hunger for information on this issue. That's the good news. The bad news is that there continues to be considerable confusion about what to do and why things need to change.
Common followup questions followed the lines of: "I've used Company X for years to handle my e-waste. They pay me to take this stuff off my hands. They're obviously making money, so things must be OK, right?"
Not necessarily. The unfortunate reality is that there are many perfectly legal and profitable ways to dispose of your IT assets and electronics, in ways that would turn your stomach. Unless you ask the right questions, you'll never know — and you could be incurring risks that you're not even aware of.
The seamy underbelly of electronics recycling
Unless you're working with recyclers that, at minimum, have either R2 or e-Stewards certifications, here's what happens all too often: Company X pays you to take your electronics. Company X refurbishes and resells what it can, leaving a pile of stuff that doesn't meet what's known as the "tech-cut line." This equipment generally has no value as re-usable products and either will be disassembled for its commodities or Frankensteined together to make new products. Company X sells this pile, usually by the pallet, to the highest bidder.
So far, so good, right? Not so fast.
Company X can pay more than others will because it doesn't have to meet third-party certification standards and will recycle in the cheapest way it possibly can. This usually means it's heading overseas to places where regulations, if they exist, are rarely enforced, and bad things will happen to people and the environment. Company X is able to pay you what it does because it guarantees itself higher margins by selling its e-scrap by the pallet to whomever will pay the most.
It all works great until you consider the environmental, reputational and social problems it can create. For a good summary of the problems, read The Guardian's story "Toxic 'e-waste' dumped in poor nations, says United Nations."
Protect the world (and your reputation) from e-waste dumping
Given these facts, those involved in making decisions on IT asset disposition needs to ask themselves two questions.
1) Even if what we're doing is perfectly legal, is it ethical for our company to dispose of our assets without assurances that all of it is being handled in the right way in every phase of the recycling process?
2) Along with our ethical obligations to act responsibly, are we putting our company's reputation and data at risk by not knowing where it's all going?
Do yourself a favor. When disposing of IT assets and electronics, work only with recyclers that, at minimum, are either R2 or e-Stewards certified and are in good standing with regulatory agencies. Doing so will mean you won't have to answer these two questions in a way that will create hardship for you and others in your community and across the globe.
This story originally appeared at Environmental Initiative. Hard drive image by Michael Hiemstra via Flickr