The Dirt on E-Waste


Environmentalism isn't measured only by green purchasing. A healthy, green disposal method is the back end of a district's responsible energy plan.

The Dirt on E-WastePOP 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 or Asset Recovery?

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

Is the Future Now For A.I.?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 viewed here.

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 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.