Friday, March 14, 2008

Green IT: Waste - How to navigate the recycling maze

There are programs out there to help businesses and consumers get rid of old equipment responsibly

Special to The Globe and Mail

As the mountains of electronic landfill pile up, businesses of all sizes need to look carefully at how they deal with e-waste.

Even what seems like a clear way to go green may have hidden loopholes. For example, if a large business simply adds a clause to its request for quote saying the company that wins the bid must recycle the computers at the end of the lease, it can then boast it is keeping its PCs out of landfill sites. But that assumes the computers will be refurbished and resold, or sent to a recycling plant.

However, if the company leasing the computers is truly dedicated to being green, it would make sure the PCs are not simply put on a slow boat to China, where computer recycling allows toxic chemicals to seep into waterbeds and puts the health and safety of workers at risk.

And it gets more complicated for smaller businesses or even individual consumers.

All major PC vendors have asset disposal programs to help businesses and consumers recycle computers. However, many companies and consumers who buy computers are not getting them to recycling depots.

Environment Canada reports that Canadians bury or incinerate 158,000 tons of obsolete computer and electronic equipment every year. That is expected to triple by 2010 when Canada's homes and businesses will collectively produce more than 400,000 tons of e-waste. E-waste, including computers, TVs and other electronics products, is the fastest growing source of waste in North America and only 11 per cent of e-waste is recycled, according to a study conducted by the University of British Columbia.

While Canadian companies "lag behind Europe and the U.S." when it comes to recycling computers, they donate more used computers to schools and charities and sell more to their employees than companies in any other country, says Marc Perrella, IDC Canada Technology Group vice-president.

However, he admits that when it comes to recycling PCs, "everything is not well organized." Small companies are far less likely to use IT disposal services compared with medium and large companies, an IDC survey found. An estimated 11 per cent of companies with less than 100 employees intend to recycle computers, compared with 65 per cent of companies with 10,000 or more employees.

A large enterprise can dedicate staff to recycling or work with a vendor to ensure there is a recycling program in place.

However, small and medium businesses and consumers are generally left to their own devices. They have to clean hard drives, pack PCs and ship them or haul them to private or municipal recycling depots. For many, it is easier and less costly to put them out with the garbage.

Often, they cannot take used PCs back to retailers, the way beer drinkers can take empties back to beer stores. Even in Alberta, which has added a fee to the price of PCs to cover recycling costs, there is no financial incentive to recycle, such as the deposit beer drinkers get back when they return empties.

"Some retailers have recycling bins for electronics; others occasionally hold recycling days. ... But it's hit and miss.

"It costs the retailers to get rid of the equipment," says Michelle Warren, a senior analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. No laws force the manufacturers, resellers, retailers, consumers and businesses to work together, so the cycle often breaks down, she adds.

Still, many Canadian organizations are making the environment, including recycling, part of their corporate values, says Mr. Perrella. A recent IDC Canada survey of business executives revealed a significant interest "in stronger information and communications technology environmentally friendly policies and practices," he said.

If businesses want to be truly green, they have to ensure their used computers are being recycled "in an environmentally sound way," says Frances Edmonds, director of environmental programs for Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co.

"There are economic incentives to do the wrong thing." For instance, electronics are often shipped to China because it's inexpensive to do so. Others are "cherry picked" for valuable parts, with the leftovers tossed into landfills.

To encourage businesses to recycle computers, HP will pick up any computer brand for a "cost recovery fee." Companies and consumers can arrange for pick up on HP's Planet Partners recycling website. The company has partnered with Sims Recycling Solutions, a division of Sims Group Ltd., to ensure computers are properly recycled. Hazardous material is safely removed and disposed of, metals are separated from plastics and reused and plastics are shredded and burned "in safe, controlled burns," replacing other fossil fuel and generating heat used in the recycling process, Ms. Edmonds says.

In July, 2007, HP announced that it had recycled one billion pounds of electronic products and supplies, diverting them from landfills, and it set a goal of recovering another billion pounds by the end of 2010.

"While many businesses are serious about proper IT asset disposal, there is considerable work to be done to help small companies understand the need for reliability and affordability of disposal methods," said Frank Fuser, director, services and customer experience, Dell Americas International. Dell's programs recovered 35.6 million kilograms of unwanted computer equipment for reuse or recycling from customers in 2006, a 93-per-cent increase over 2005. As a result of its global consumer and business awareness program, the company is ahead of schedule to achieve a multi-year goal of recovering 125 million kilograms of unwanted equipment by 2009.

Dell is the only computer manufacturer to offer consumers worldwide a no-charge recycling service for its own computer equipment without requiring new product purchases. The company was the first to set product recovery goals in 2004 and completed the rollout of its global recycling program in 2006.

The IT asset disposal sector is in the midst of a "major transformation," evolving from a relatively new sector to one with established processes, says Mr. Perrella.

To do your bit



Takes computer hardware and inkjet or laser cartridges for recycling for a fee

Has free retail drop-off points for rechargeable batteries

Has trade-in options



Consumers: no-charge recycling for Dell equipment without requiring new product purchases

Businesses: fee-based service for removing and recycling any used IT equipment

Donating: National Cristina Foundation helps disabled and disadvantaged children and adults



Free computer take-back and recycling with the purchase of a new Mac

$30 (U.S.) to ship a used computer or monitor to Apple's recycling partner

reBOOT Canada


Accepts drop-off donations or arranges for pick-up for a fee of computers and some electronic equipment at several locations across the country

Non-profit provides computer hardware and training to charities, non-profits and people with limited access to technology


Electronic Recycling Association (for western Canada):

More options:

More ideas at

Eye on the future

In November, 2007, IDC Canada did a survey for Hewlett-Packard Co. of 231 information technology and other executives at large and mid-sized Canadian organizations. When asked about their companies' environmentally-friendly IT approaches, the survey indicates the proportion of businesses:

Planning on doing it in 3 yearsPlanning on doing it in 5 years

Doing it now
Recycling services for hardware53%79%83%
Improved PC energy savings47%80%82%
Telework/remote office (reducing carbon footprint)32%55%61%
Energy efficient means of powering equipment28%61%68%
Smart energy efficient office systems23%54%65%

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