Trash Talking

Most of our electronic waste ends up in China, where impoverished families mine it for small amounts of copper and gold.

Most of our electronic waste ends up in China, where impoverished families mine it for small amounts of copper and gold.

By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven by Upstate Business Journal

What did your business get for Christmas? Maybe some new computers, tablets or smartphones? Now that you’ve started rolling out the new stuff, you may be asking yourself what to do with the old. 

Our electronics are seething pits of heavy metals, toxic fumes and leaching chemicals. Certainly we have all seen the photos of landfills in the poorest parts of the world where the industrialized countries dump our laptops, iPads and outdated servers. The World Health Organization outlines the health and environmental damage being done by dumping, dismantling and harvesting valuable elements from e-waste around the world in this article. The world’s children, it points out, are the most vulnerable to the health impact of lead, cadmium and chromium leaching into groundwater from mountains of decaying electronic waste. 

Not only is responsible disposal the right thing to do, it is also the law. Since July 2011, it has been illegal in South Carolina to dispose of electronic waste in residential trash and unregulated landfills. Residential e-waste can be taken to Greenville County recycling centers, but commercial e-waste must be disposed of through an authorized recycler.

There are several steps to take and questions to ask yourself and your vendor before you dispose of those old electronics.

Determine if it can still be useful

Is the old equipment useful anywhere else in your operation? Sometimes older computers still have useful functions, even if they aren’t workhorses anymore. You may have a higher end computer somewhere in your operation for someone who just checks email. Businesses often don’t look at computer use as whole because roll-downs can take time and resources. But they can also save money when you look at least once a year at whether you have the right tool in the right person’s hands. Do you need to buy new equipment? Or swap something? 

Make sure all your data is wiped from it

Still there will be devices that you want to get rid of. Most importantly, you need to make sure that the hard drives of any computing devices are thoroughly wiped. Many recyclers will offer this service, but in making this decision, remember it is your data and not theirs. If you want to have the recycler do it, read on for a list of questions to ask to ensure the company you choose knows what they’re doing. 

A warning: It takes time to completely destroy all the data on a hard drive. A basic reformat will not be sufficient. That’s a lesson that the Greenville County school district learned in 2006 when it sold computers that still had personnel and student information including Social Security numbers for about 100,000 students and 1,000 staff members. 

There are disagreements about the best process to wipe your drives and if you really want to get your geek on you can read them here.

Most non-military or national security organizations recommend where you can download free software for personal use and find software packages to purchase for enterprise use. 

Don’t overlook mobile devices, phones, tablets, readers,  and (for home users, game consoles). They are miniature computers and they store data on chips, SIM cards, mini-SDs and more. A good article from Consumer Reports explains how to check all these devices and wipe the data before recycling. 

Pick the right recycler

Every company with a truck is not the same so be sure you select a company that not only says it knows how to handle e-waste, but has the experience and certifications to back that up. This is especially true if you are going to have your recycler handle secure destruction of your data. According to the Telecommunications Industry Association, reputable firms should be able to provide you with certification that your data was destroyed and record of the methods it used. 

TIA says qualified organizations should be able to produce proof that they have proper facilities and training, as well as management/operation audits to back that up. Certifications, such as ISO 14001 or certs from industry organizations such as the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER) should also be able to be produced. TIA has a detailed list of questions available.

If the company you’re using is just a conduit to a final recycling operation, they should still be able to tell where they are handing it off and provide proof of delivery to a firm that has these certifications and references. If you’re doing that, however, you might want to ensure that your drives have been wiped before pick up.

This may be an area most affecting small businesses and nonprofits. Electronic waste disposal is a growing problem. Being aware of the steps to take, questions to ask and qualifications to look for is critical for businesses no matter how small to be part of doing the right thing.