The Dirt on E-Waste
isn't measured only
by green purchasing.
A healthy, green
disposal method is
the back end of a
POP QUIZ! What happens to your computer
equipment when you've declared it surplus? Does it
get shuffled into a warehouse, awaiting attention at some
unspecified later date? Do you stick it on a pallet and have
it hauled away by a recycler? Do you sell it, refurbish it,
ship it back to a vendor, or drive it to the dump?
Don't know? You're not alone. Most smart technology
leaders can name multiple efforts they've already taken or
expect to pursue in their schools to "green up" IT operations,
such as powering off idle computers and virtualizing the data
center. But one area that many of them may not be so savvy
about is hardware disposal: What to do with the old stuff? After all, it's not something from which they can garner easy
or obvious savings. But, as some districts have figured out,
the disposal end of technology acquisition is as vital a part
of purchasing decisions as choosing energy-efficient devices.
Nobody knows precisely how much e-waste is generated
by schools nationwide. According to the Natural Resources
Defense Council, Americans on the whole throw out about
130,000 computers a day. That tallies up to 47.5 million a
year. And the numbers can only grow. Technology market
researcher Gartner estimates that 15.6 million new PCs were
shipped in the US during just the fourth quarter of 2008--
and that was during an economic slowdown. It's safe to
assume that the work of schools to refresh their technology
contributes a fair share to that count.
So what should you do when you don't want your old
machines anymore? It isn't sufficient to simply say, Recycle!
Those good intentions often come to bad ends. According
to a study by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which
advocates for a clean and safe high-tech industry, up to 80
percent of e-waste taken to recycling centers in this country
ends up being exported to towns in developing countries for
scrap recovery. There, according to a CBS 60 Minutes report
last November titled "The Electronic Wasteland,"
residents, including children, use crude and toxic means to
dismantle computers, monitors, and other electronics in an
effort to remove precious metals, such as gold.
That's antithetical to what US educators want, explains
Sarah O'Brien, outreach director of the Green Electronics
Council, a Portland, OR-based organization that works for
the environmentally safe use and reuse of electronic products.
O'Brien educates purchasers and the public about
the GEC's EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental
Assessment Tool), a system that helps green-minded buyers
by establishing criteria that identify just how green a computing
device is. "A lot of the criteria that have to do with
toxics have a direct impact on kids," she says. "Not [just]
the kids in the district-- children across the world."
But districts that approach the disposal of their old,
unwanted computer equipment with the proper diligence are
finding that they have several options, all of which illustrate
why unloading e-waste doesn't have to be dirty work.
RECYCLING AND ASSET RECOVERY are two concepts that people
in the waste disposal industry bandy about, but the two terms actually
have distinct meanings, which you'll want to know when you discuss
the disposal of surplus technology. The word recycling in the
general population means to put something back into play, but has
a different context in the e-waste business.
"We view it as breaking something down to the component
level," says Craig Johoske, director of asset recovery services at Epic
Systems, which calls itself an asset recovery firm.
In that sense, recycling means breaking apart a piece of equipment
to recover its plastic, glass, metals, and other elements. " Asset
recovery [means] selling equipment on behalf of the client and then
splitting the proceeds with them," Johoske explains.
Another School's Treasure
Before the concept of e-waste recycling was better understood,
Union School District in San Jose, CA, would rent giant waste
containers at great expense. The bins would be labeled "recyclable
materials," recalls Mary Allen, supervisor of maintenance
and operations. "But back then nobody paid attention. All we
were told was, 'You can't put concrete or dirt in there.' We
dumped everything. When I first started with the district, we had
piles and piles of this stuff, because nobody knew what to do
with it." Once the district learned that monitors and TVs were
hazardous waste, says Allen, it held on to them.
The 4,000-student district picked up the disposal costs--
about $1,000 dollars a year-- until a company came along that
offered to haul away the whole lot of electronics for free,
including monitors, computers, copy machines, and printers.
"We knew that they broke down every unit and disposed of
them separately," she says. "The glass went one place. They
were actually recycling the units." Now the district could
divert that disposal expense to other purposes.
Then, in 2005, Allen learned about InterSchola, a company
that inventories a district's surplus hardware and handles selling
it on eBay and other auction sites. Suddenly, the job of getting
rid of old equipment could be a money maker.
"It was a great experience," says Allen. "I dealt with one
person in particular. He came out and did a field visit. He took
pictures and kept me posted via e-mail: 'Okay, we're going to
post these on eBay as of this date. This is the starting price
we're going to ask.'" Allen could monitor the auctions to see
how well the bidding was going. On that first sale, she says,
"we made a good $5,000 to $6,000." A recent sale netted
between $3,000 and $4,000.
InterSchola, launched in 2004, has worked with about 250
districts in California and New York, selling not only old electronic
components but also school buses, maintenance carts,
and furniture. For some goods, state law may require that a
school district's board must declare a piece of equipment as
surplus before it can be disposed of at public auction. It's that
process-- from development of the list of items that goes to the
local board for approval on through to the shipping of the equipment
to the final buyer-- that is handled by InterSchola.
Breaking Down an E-Cycler
AT REDEMTECH, a Columbus, OH-based IT asset
recovery provider certified by the Basel Action Network as
an "e-steward," great care is taken, says Jim Mejia, Redemtech's vice president
of environmental affairs, with either route an electronic product can
go once it has been turned over to the company: refurbishing and
reselling, or conversion into its base components.
The process for preparing, for example, a school laptop for resale at
Redemtech goes like this: The company picks up the laptop at the
school, where the machine is labeled, scanned, packaged, then loaded
onto a truck and driven away. It's rescanned upon arrival at the e-waste
facility to ensure that no sensitive data was lost in transit. At that point,
the unit is registered into a database.
Next, the machine is put through an assembly line. A worker typically
does a hard-drive erasure to Department of Defense standards, making
all data on the drive virtually unrecoverable. Redemtech is a Microsoft authorized refurbisher. Therefore, if the computer
has value, it's cleaned up and reloaded with Microsoft Windows XP or
Vista, allowing it to be reused. From that point, it's shipped to one of
the resale channels used by the company, including 21 Micro Center
stores, run by Redemtech's parent company, Micro Electronics.
It's also possible that the unit will be dismantled by hand and resalable
components shipped to a secondary market or overseas for additional
processing and resale. "That's where my responsibility starts," Mejia says.
Each type of e-waste is sent to an appropriate conversion partner. It's
Mejia's job to ensure that the facilities his company works with are "clean
and have good pollution control technology that not only protects the
community but also ensures their employees aren't exposed to toxins."
A "converter," as Mejia calls the partnering company, will take the unit
and convert it into its components. For example, a 67-pound, 19-inch
Sony monitor can be disassembled into the following: 5 pounds of steel,
3 pounds of aluminum, 1 pound of copper, a fraction of an ounce of
brass, 5 pounds of electronic board, 13 pounds of plastic, and 40 pounds
of cathode ray tube. Each part can be sold to a foundry or processor.
Mejia says that essentially the entire unit can be recycled. That includes
the CRT, which has its own composition of elements, including lead and
glass; the circuit card, which contains copper, lead, and chromium; and
the plastic, which is an oil-based derivative.
By-products-- those components of the unit that have no value to
anybody after the e-waste treatment-- are considered hazardous waste.
Those elements end up in large, sealed containers and buried in carefully
regulated hazardous waste landfills with groundwater protection
and other controls.
"A lot of people are ingrained in thinking that once they're
done with something, it must be at the end of its lifecycle," says
Melissa Rich, InterSchola's president and founder. "While it
may not make financial sense for your district to repair those
items, there may be districts for which purchasing your old stuff
is exactly what they need. And it really does extend the life of
technology. That's what we all want to do."
About 80 to 85 percent of the equipment accepted and listed
by InterSchola ends up selling through eBay or another marketplace.
What doesn't find a buyer is released back to the district.
The company recommends recyclers that will, for a fee, remove
equipment from a district.
Often, outdated electronics equipment that has been deemed
as "surplus" by the district's board doesn't have much financial
value. In that case, InterSchola won't attempt to sell it.
"They're very honest," says Allen. "We've had some big TVs.
They've told us, 'There's no market for that.' Those end up
going to the recycling company."
Chasing the Chain
That's the part that worries Rich Kaestner. Since the launch
of the Consortium for School Networking's (CoSN) Green Computing
Leadership Initiative last year, Kaestner, the initiative's
project director, has been waist-deep in e-waste. He has grown
skeptical of the motives of some disposal providers: "How much
of it is greenwash," he asks, referring to business efforts that are
packaged as environmentally motivated but in fact have other
designs, "and how much of it is really doing the right thing?"
Kaestner praises asset recovery efforts, but wonders about the
fate met by the items deemed unfit for recovery and resale and
handed off to a recycler. It's the toxic outcome of a lack of
attention to that end of the process that 60 Minutes exposed. He
says the problem is a lack of transparency at every point on the
trail: What we see is the removal, not the disposal, so we can't
know with certainty whether the leftovers are truly dispensed
of in a safe manner. "I'm not sure if you follow the chain that
everything gets to where it needs to be," he says.
A case in point of taking the good with, potentially, the bad is
the take-back option some vendors, like Apple, HP, and Lenovo,
provide to districts that buy their hardware products; the maker
offers to "take back" a district's old systems. Arlington Public
Schools in Virginia has such an arrangement with Dell.
In the last five years, Arlington has virtualized its network
office, modified technology purchase orders to mandate compliance
with the federal Energy Star program, and taught its
users to shut off workstations at the end of the day to reduce
energy usage. Though the motives were mainly financial, the
outcomes have been greatly environmental.
A recently board-approved initiative will allow the district to
refresh its computers every three years. That means in another
two years all the machines in Arlington will have been replaced.
"We'll be using machines that are more energy-efficient, and
that will allow us to keep up with energy standards in the
industry," Assistant Superintendent Walter McKenzie says.
That in turn means a surge of old machines being put out to
pasture. Fortunately, the district already has a destination in
mind for them, one journeyed by, according to McKenzie, the
9,750 computers, 38 LCD projectors, and two interactive whiteboards
the district has disposed of during the past five years. The
computers will follow one of two routes away from the schools
where they have been in use: They may go through an auction
process or be taken back by Dell, the supplier of the new PCs.
Dell's Asset Recovery and Recycling Services site describes
a multi-part process to customers. The company will pick up the
old equipment, ship it to its facilities, wash it of all data, perform
an audit to determine the remaining value, then help the
district resell it to a third party. Dell can also have the hardware
donated to the National Cristina Foundation, which passes it
along to charities, schools, and public agencies for reuse.
"Everybody takes their piece of usable equipment out of it,
and that's good," Kaestner says. "That's a good start."
It's a third option listed by Dell that raises his doubts. The
company offers districts the choice of having their obsolete
goods broken down and the parts handled by "specific partners
who specialize in the disposal of each unique material." Kaestner
says the promise of an "environmentally sensitive" disposal
is one that can't be taken on faith. "Who takes the pieces out?"
he asks. "Who is concerned that mercury and cadmium and all
the rest of that nasty stuff doesn't go into the groundwater and
eventually into streams? In order to feel like we're really doing
the right job here, you have to chase the whole chain."
Kaestner says he hopes and suggests districts and vendors
follow through with whatever e-cycler receives their unusable
goods so that the items meet the healthy disposition the organizations
intend. "We don't know how much rigor they put into the
processing of stuff that cannot be recycled," he says. "It's more
of a question and not an accusation."
Dell, it should be pointed out, has a "Be a Responsible
Neighbor" provision in its recycling program that prohibits
materials that pose a threat to the environment from being
deposited in developing countries unless its own Asset Recovery
Services Council has approved of the exportation channel.
Kaestner hopes CoSN will be able to research this issue in the
future, but for now it's not a priority, mostly because the takeback
programs are so new. "By new, I mean months old," he
says. "They haven't been around a long time. One announces it,
and then all the others jump onto the bandwagon in a hurry."
"The Electronic Wasteland," 60 Minutes' story on what
happens to many discarded electronic goods, can be
Calling All E-Stewards
Chad Stevens participates in CoSN's Green
Computing Initiative. About the same time
that he moved from being a school principal
into the CTO role for Texas' Clear Creek Independent
School District, located between Houston and Galveston in
Johnson Space Center country, a new energy manager joined
the district. "We were talking about some simple ways we
could save energy without spending money," he recalls. "A
combination of two interests-- sustainability and saving
energy-- led me to volunteer, just to learn more about it." That
participation in the CoSN project, in turn, provided him with
a crash course in green initiatives.
Stevens and his IT team have begun automating the power settings
of monitors and computers, virtualizing the data center,
and piloting a possible thin-client computer transition. One issue
they face is how to maintain a strong obsolescence policy-- no
computer is older than five years-- with a student enrollment
that's growing at 1,000 kids a year. "We're refreshing our
computers, but we're running on a treadmill," Stevens says.
"How long can we sustain our investment?"
Whether the district ultimately replaces existing machines
with comparable models, albeit newer ones, or thin clients, a
lot of equipment will need to be disposed of in their wake. In
2008, the district replaced 2,500 computers between January
and April. The hardware was hauled away by Epic Systems, a
company that offers recycling of computers at the expense of
$10 to $15 apiece. But that invites the question that goes to the
heart of the issue: What does Epic do with the hardware?
Shortly after the 60 Minutes story on e-waste aired, the Basel
Action Network (BAN), an international organization that
focuses on writing policies and legislation dealing with e-waste
and that served as an adviser on the 60 Minutes piece,
announced a formal program to certify electronics recyclers and
asset managers as "e-stewards." Accreditation requires proof that
the company isn't dumping e-waste into landfills or incinerators
and isn't exporting e-waste to developing countries.
It is these standards Epic says it adheres to by virtue of hiring
out to ECS Refining, listed by Basel as an e-steward. Because
ECS Refining bears the BAN stamp of approval, Stevens can be
confident Epic plays by the rules. "I can look anybody in the eye
and say our computers aren't ending up in a landfill," he says.
According to CoSN's Kaestner, that's the way all old electronics
should be handled. "The stuff that can be recycled, if we
want to be good, green world citizens, should go through an
organization that's been approved by BAN," he says. "That's
the best we've got."
A Refreshing Solution
The current drop in commodity pricing with copper, aluminum,
and even crude oil is affecting the sustainability of the
overall value of the makeup of e-waste. "You're losing money
on the process," says Jim Mejia, vice president of environmental
affairs for Redemtech, certified by BAN as an e-steward.
"So you try to make it up on the recycle fees."
In other words, the dismantling
and conversion of
components that have no
resale value, which is a labor-intensive
process, has a price tag. When recyclers can't make
money reselling metal or glass, they will make it up elsewhere
in the supply chain by charging more to the customer needing to
dispose of those materials-- the school district, in this case.
Mejia has a suggestion for districts wanting to offset disposal
costs: Refresh your technology more often, while it still has
reuse value for someone else. "There's a refresh cycle that's
sustainable, when you're going to get the peak value for your
used equipment," he says. "Yes, you could use it longer, but in
the end, you won't recognize value." The moral: Better too
soon than too late. That way, says Mejia, "the district ends up
with a check at the end."
If you would like more information on e-waste disposal, visit
our website at www.thejournal.com. In the
Browse by Topic menu, click on recycling.
Dian Schaffhauser is a freelance writer based in Nevada City, CA.
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.