E-Waste: When Landfills Are Not an Option

E-Waste: When Landfills Are Not an Option

Headlines abound with stories of branded technology being fished out of rivers and landfills in developing nations leaking toxic metals into the water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates roughly 400,000 tons of e-waste goes to recyclers every year, and that up to 80 percent of the materials sorted for recycling end up in operations in China, India, Southeast Asia and West Africa where it is disassembled and burned or dumped.

But it doesn't have to be that way, declares Mark Newton, the senior manager of environmental sustainability at Dell Computers, the computer manufacturing giant based in Round Rock, Texas.

"We don't see e-waste as toxic waste, we see it as a resource recovery operation," he says. Dell offers a technology take-back program that recycles all Dell branded equipment free of charge, and accepts other branded equipment from customers when they purchase new technology. The company recently announced that it has banned the export of non-working electronics to developing countries as part of its global policy on responsible electronics disposal, surpassing the requirements of the Basel Convention, which bans export of certain electronic waste.

"For us it makes sense," he says. "From a resource conservation standpoint alone, there is a lot of valuable stuff in these computers and we want to keep those materials in the value chain."

But that can't be done if companies don't think about e-waste disposal until the technology is obsolete.

Marriott: Preach What You Practice

"E-waste management is not just what we do with technology at the end of the lifecycle," declares Sharon Dorsey, senior director of the information resources organization at Marriott, the global hotel chain based in Bethesda, Maryland. "It is how we ensure our customers buy and manage technologically appropriate assets in a manner that is responsible to the world."

It's a bold statement that acts as the foundation for Marriott's approach to managing the growing mountain of obsolete technology.

Dorsey argues that if you hold off thinking about e-waste disposal until the closet in the IT department is crammed with old laptops, cell phones and obsolete printers, you are not making decisions that are good for the business or the environment. Rather it is an issue that should be factored into the decision making process before any piece of technology is even purchased, she says.

"You have to consider how the product is manufactured, how much energy it will use over the course of its life, and how easy will be to dismantle and recycle."

Bob Houghton, president and CEO of Redemtech, an IT asset-disposition company based in Columbus, Ohio, agrees. "The biggest mistake a company can make in asset disposal is to look at it as a stand alone program," he says. "It should be viewed as a strategic life cycle decision that can add value to the company."

Dorsey's department facilitates technology procurement for the entire global hotel chain, and helps owners manage its maintenance and eventual disposal. Along with sourcing technology for the headquarters, she supports all of the individually owned properties who look to her for guidance but are not obligated to follow her advice.

"Our company is made up of 3,000 other companies," she points out. "And while I have great control over the assets owned by corporate, I don't have that with the distributed property groups, so it's important that I show them the value of good e-waste disposal processes."

That includes educating end users about the importance of database scrubs, and the true cost of safely managing end-of-life issues. "There are costs involved with disposal," she points out. "They need to know that nothing is free."

At the front-end, Dorsey chooses Energy Star-compliant equipment, and takes advantage of EPEAT, a program that helps purchasers evaluate, compare and select electronic products based on environmental attributes. She also takes advantage of Hewlett Packard's technology take-back program for toner cartridges, and seeks out other partners who demonstrate environmental stewardship in their product design and operations management.

At the back-end, her team provides end users with access to the appropriate tools, education and recycling vendors to properly dispose of equipment.

Dorsey went through a rigorous proposal, audit, and review process before choosing a recycler. She sought references from colleagues and industry members, and conducted multiple site visits before agreeing to a partnership. She also established specific terms and conditions in the contract outlining expectations for environmentally safe waste handling, and a stipulation that all liability relating to the technology disposal goes to the vendor.

"This is not a simple decision," she advises. "You are not just choosing someone to haul away your trash. There are environmental considerations, security issues, and information protection concerns to think about, and you have to do your homework."
The E-Stewards certification program is a new project to identify responsible electronics recyclers in the United States. E-Stewards
According to their contract with their ITAD disposal partner, Marriott conducts an initial scrub of all databases in house, then the technology is turned over to the asset disposition manager who conducts a second scrub, then assesses the value of the technology. They refurbish and resell equipment that still has value, other as standalone units or piecemeal for repair parts such as memory, power supplies or LED monitors. A percentage of that resale revenue goes back to Marriott.

"There is value in the resale process, but I'm always suspicious of recyclers who push that revenue stream as the primary reason to work with them," Dorsey suggests, noting that the returns are not substantial.

That suspicious is warranted, says Redemtech's Houghton who points out that there are currently few regulations in the U.S. to govern how and where recyclers can dispose of obsolete technology.

Without legislation, recyclers have no one looking over their shoulders to ensure they are following through on promises of environmentally safe disposal practices. And if a vendor promise greats returns on recycled technology and materials, companies should be wary, he warns.

"The vast majority of these recycled materials are low value waste," Houghton points out. "When you look at the cost of recovery, logistics, and handling there is no way the math works."

Many companies claim that they only dispose of e-waste locally, but unless you audit and monitor their practices you have no way of knowing whether they are complying with those promises, adds Newton.

"When there is no oversight, nothing prevents bad behavior," he says.

Dell and other environmentally focused groups are actively working with state and national legislators to help develop laws and a code of conduct for ewaste handlers. But in the meantime, the lack of governance forces companies to closely manage oversight of their recycling partners or risk the consequences of losing control of their corporate knowledge and branded assets.

GSK Finds Comfort Up North

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the global pharmaceutical company based in Philadelphia, reduces some of that risk by shipping all of its recyclable technology to Canada where e-waste disposal is regulated, says Armin Jahromi, service development manager for desktop services at GSK.

"Rather than give our equipment to any company claiming to be environmentally friendly, our executive team would rather absorb the added cost of shipping it to Canada to ensure none of it goes into landfills," he says. "That says a lot about the company, that we will spend money not to take the easy way out."

An important aspect of GSKs sustainability program is a zero landfill policy for e-waste. That means every piece of equipment must either be reused in house, refurbished for resale, or dismantled for parts recycling.

"If a piece of equipment with a GSK asset tag on it ends up in a river in China that gives us a bad name," notes Jahromi of the company's commitment to environmentally responsible e-waste handling.

Achieving this end of life goal for equipment means that GSK relies on its strategic partnerships and a risk management strategy that guarantees the company can track where every asset ends up after it is decommissioned, whether it was rebuilt, or recycled for parts or material.

The company partners with Planet ROI, an asset management firm based in New Jersey that initially salvages GSK equipment, wipes the databases using technology originally designed for Department of Defense, and refurbishes what it can for resale on a secondary market.

As part of the contract agreement, Planet ROI provides GSK with detailed asset management tracking reports, documenting every piece of equipment that comes in, when the hard drive was wiped clean, and whether it was sold or recycled.

All parts that can't be refurbished for reuse are shipped to GSK's partner in Canada where the parts are broken down for recycling. Base materials, including steel, aluminum, copper and plastics, are separated and put back into the material development stream, eliminating the need for landfill dumping.

"Because of these strong partnerships, we have great confidence that nothing malicious will happen with our data or our equipment," Jahromi says.

He also notes that none of GSK's refurbished technology is donated to charities due to the complicated nature of tracking that technology through it's end of life.

"We used to give old PCs to end users or donate them to non-profit groups, but it became increasingly complicated in this litigious society," Jahromi laments. "We got complaints about who was getting donations, and it became difficult to track. The liability became too great."

Newton agrees that these kinds of one-to-one donations can be challenging from a risk management perspective. To alleviate some of that risk and enable companies to support charitable giving, many technology companies partner with non-profit groups to establish trackable donation options within their technology take back programs.

Dell, for example, partners with the National Cristina Foundation (NCF) and Goodwill to donate technology to disabled and economically disadvantaged children and adults.

"We partner with these groups because they care about their brand responsibility and they have processes in place to manage our donations responsibly," Newton says.

Be Careful

Whether the goal is to donate technology, or dispose of it properly, the key to managing ewaste safely is oversight, planning, and careful evaluation of the legitimacy of your partners.

"You've got to do your due diligence, ask questions about the operation, and demand transparency," Houghton advises. "You also need to consider what you are willing to spend to manage your risks."

"It's all part and parcel to how you approach any technology program," adds Dorsey. "Consider the overall cost and value of the total technology solution and make good business decisions based on that."