The Disposal Problem

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Our surplus electronic parts are poisoning the planet. Lead, cadmium, mercury, and other toxic substances used in the manufacture or computing equipment is escaping into the environment from improperly disposed equipment. The correct handling of these substances is essential to avoid long term health problems for people and damage to the environmental.

We live with a "throw-away" mentality. If a cell phone is broken, just get a new one. If a radio breaks, throw it away and buy a replacement. In most cases, it is cheaper to purchase a new item than to try and get the old one repaired. There are good reasons for this. The cost of the repair may be as much or more than the price of a replacement. Also, there may be a several week delay before the replacement arrives. At best, we give the broken device to someone who may repair it for their own use. However, in most cases, it is simply added to the local landfill.

Electronic equipment is created from many different materials. When the device ends up in the waste stream, these substances can escape into the environment, causing damage and potential health risks to humans and animals.

The issue is how to safely discard old electronic equipment. Recently, the disposal effort has shifted to how to recycle the materials in electronics to minimize the amount that is stuffed into landfills. Recycling potentially saves energy because it is cheaper to reuse a material than to dig it out of the ground, transport it, smelt it, and then ship it to the manufacturer. Recycling changes this to isolating the material, extracting it, and then shipping it for reuse.

Another factor driving disposal is the three-year desktop and server-refresh cycles used by most companies. New desktop computers, monitors, and servers are typically sold with a three-year warranty. During this time, parts and labor are provided (under certain circumstances) for free. Once this service has expired, it is believed that the technology has advanced to such as degree (usually two generations) that new equipment provides more reliable and faster service than the older device. This results in the movement of equipment with significant remaining useful life into the waste stream.

This brings up several significant issues:

▲ The "old" equipment may have many more years of reliable service left in it. Yet interest in this equipment is low. Since these desktop units and servers are no longer under warranty, the cost of an outside service company to support them must be included in a budget. Other companies are reluctant to purchase these older servers, since they are unknown quantities and may have been poorly maintained. The cost to purchase this used equipment, added to the cost to ship it, plus the technical labor to examine it comes close to the cost of a new unit with a full warranty support.

▲ Disk drives and anything that may hold company information cannot be passed on to another entity. The common practice is to crush them to render the platters unreadable. This significantly reduces the value of used equipment since a new replacement drive must be purchased before the device is usable.

▲ Disposal of the old equipment must be handled by a professional recycler. They will charge to pick up and haul away the equipment. If it can be resold, some of this money may be refunded. The recycler makes its profit from properly disassembling and shredding the components so that the basic materials can be extracted.

So why not just chuck the equipment into the dumpster and crush it before it is picked up? Who would know? Likely the very people you are trying to deceive. Improper disposal of electronic components may lead to extensive fines for your company. A single device showing up in a landfill with your company's asset tag still attached can be damning evidence. Serial numbers on the chassis and on internal components may also be traced back to an organization. The result may be the cost of remediating an entire landfill for potential toxic waste that was snuck in by other companies —just because the evidence of your action is apparent.

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