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Recycling Old Office Equipment

Recycling Old Office Equipment


(July 1, 2011)

What You Need to Ask to Find the Right Recycler

Every company in the United States is inundated with out-of-date electronic equipment. More and more items are “smart”: they store data, turn themselves on and off, talk with you when you are traveling—and also break or become obsolete quickly. As a result, nearly every company has a growing collection of old computers, televisions, copiers, printers, fax machines, telephones and assorted other electronic devices.

What should you do with all this stuff? Increasingly, states are banning electronic devices from landfills, because some of the equipment contains hazardous substances. Televisions and older computer monitors contain lead and cadmium. Newer LCD screens and some larger copiers have light bulbs that contain a small amount of mercury. Other electronic equipment might have batteries and other hazardous substances. As a result, throwing the equipment out is no longer an option.

A new industry has developed to help companies get rid of old electronics. Over the past 10 years, the volume of electronics recycled in the United States has quadrupled, and more than 2,000 companies now offer electronics recycling services.

Electronics recyclers differ in their focus. Some companies concentrate on finding new uses for old equipment, thus maximizing its financial value. Others disassemble the equipment and harvest parts for resale. Other companies mechanically shred and process the equipment, converting it into commodity grade materials for use as raw materials in the production of other products.

The challenge for any company is to find an electronics recycler that will help meet its specific goals. Determining which recycler is right for your company takes some homework.

Determining your goals

Before deciding what to do with your company’s old equipment, you should decide what goals are most important to the company:

Do you want to get the highest price for your equipment, or at least minimize the cost associated with getting rid of it?

Do you want to make absolutely sure that all confidential data stored on your devices are destroyed?

Do you want to avoid any residual liability if the equipment causes any contamination or other problems?

Do you want to avoid exporting your equipment to other countries?

Does your company follow a “reduce, reuse, recycle” hierarchy so as to minimize its impact on the environment?

While all these goals may be important, sometimes they conflict with each other. In thinking about how to dispose of your electronic devices, it is important to recognize when you are choosing one goal over another.

How to Select a Recycler

Once you have identified some electronics recyclers that operate in your area, you should consider a number of questions in addition to price:

What will the recycler do with my equipment, and where?

As discussed above, some recyclers will grind your electronic devices up and separate them into commodity-grade scrap. Others will repair or refurbish it and sell it on the open market, while others might fill a shipping container and send it to another country. The recycler should tell you exactly where your material will go throughout the recycling chain. If it does not tell you, that is a warning sign.

What is the recycler’s reputation for service?

Ask for names and telephone numbers of the recycler’s clients in your area, and call them up. A recycler that works with your schedule, shows up when expected and provides prompt and accurate documentation will make your life easier.

Is the recycler certified?

A key consideration is whether the recycler has been certified under one or more of the prevailing national and international standards. These standards do not provide a guarantee that the company is acting responsibly, but they do indicate that the company takes its work seriously.

Three of these standards are familiar to many companies. The ISO 9001 (quality), ISO 14001 (environmental), and OHSAS 18001 (worker health and safety) standards are international in scope and are written to apply to all industries. Most electronics recyclers have at least one of these certifications.

The scrap recycling industry has developed the Recycling Industry Operating Standard (RIOS), which brings together elements of all three international standards into one program applicable generally to the recycling industry. Less than 25 percent of electronics recyclers have adopted this standard.

Two standards have been developed recently to apply specifically to electronics recyclers. The e-Steward standard and the Responsible Recycling (R2) standard are similar in scope and require each certified facility to have a documented quality, environmental, health and safety program. They also require that each facility examine all downstream facilities throughout the recycling chain to ensure that materials are being handled properly.

The best recyclers will have a package of information available to demonstrate their commitment to these standards.

Is the recycler operating in compliance with the law?

Finding a recycler that operates in compliance with environmental, health and safety laws has important benefits. Because some electronic equipment contains hazardous substances, your company faces potential Superfund liability if the recycler contaminates the soil, groundwater or surface water.

Thankfully, Congress has provided an exemption from liability for any company that uses reasonable care to determine that the recycling facility it deals with is operating in compliance with the substantive aspects of all environmental laws. A check of EPA’s “ECHO” database  will provide a snapshot of the company’s environmental compliance history. You also may want to request information from state and local environmental agencies. Further, you should ask the recycler to certify that it is in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. You should document your reasonable efforts to determine compliance.

You also can find out a great deal about a recycler’s commitment to compliance by visiting its facility. Does it operate completely under roof, without storing anything outside? Is it using proper care in storing batteries, mercury-containing light bulbs and used oil? Is the facility neat and orderly?

How to Protect Your Data

A company that wishes to maximize the money it can make on its used electronic equipment but also wants to be sure that its sensitive data have been destroyed faces a dilemma. Computer data are stored on hard drives. The two most common ways to destroy that data are (1) to wipe them following prescribed protocols; or (2) to destroy them by shredding.

Reselling the wiped drives may generate more money, but it also leaves open the possibility that confidential data might reach the public. Shredding a hard drive absolutely destroys the data it holds, but a shredded hard drive has only scrap value. Companies must choose which goal—maximum profits or absolute certainty of data destruction—is more important to them.

Don’t Forget About Copiers

Large copy machines include hard disks, which store images of documents and then reproduce them. Many companies forget that the data stored in copiers probably are just as confidential as the data on computer or server disks. Make sure that the recycler has a procedure for removing and destroying the data on these drives.

Choosing an electronics recycler may seem bewildering at first, but the rewards are great. You may find another revenue stream for your company, you will free up storage space, and you will be able to sleep at night knowing that your company’s confidential data will not end up in the wrong hands.

Click here to view the full digital version of the The Innovation edition of SML Perspectives.

Authors
Stephen W. Earp
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