Cleaning IT's Basement

If ever your house starts sinking into the earth, the old joke goes, look for the culprit in those piles of National Geographic magazines stacked in some corner of the basement. Everyone with a pack rat in the family knows why that's still funny (and why those piles are probably still growing).

At my house, the mountains of magazines are a molehill compared with the swelling stacks of old PC monitors and obsolete electronic gear. And that stuff can't be surreptitiously tossed in the trash (when the pack rat is off at Home Depot), because of its toxic contents. E-waste has to be hauled off to special hazardous-waste disposal centers instead. And what a big pain that is. So the pile keeps growing.

Now, imagine that tendency on a much grander corporate scale, and turn to this week's "Toxic Legacy" cover story to see what your company needs to know about e-waste disposal.

Why should you care? Because the liability risks are growing. So are the fines and legal penalties companies face if they screw up the disposal process, which gets more restrictive every year.

The physical scope of the problem is daunting, with 63 million PCs junked last year alone and an estimated 315 million PCs piling up in U.S. landfills by the end of this year. Legislation to crack down on e-waste disposal is pending in 24 states, and some already ban certain IT products from landfills. The EPA has tagged e-waste as the fastest-growing stream of waste in the U.S., in fact. Not exactly a point of pride for this industry.

The public embarrassment of being identified as an e-waste polluter -- as Dell was in a 2002 report by two activist groups -- is another weighty consequence of ignoring the issue. Even though the PC maker today offers computer recycling programs, that didn't stop 150 student organizations from 50 states from signing an ad that ran this past December in The Austin Chronicle, the alternative weekly in Michael Dell's hometown, urging the company to recycle responsibly. Hewlett-Packard and IBM learned quickly from Dell's experience and set up their own computer "take-back" recycling programs.

So, what are IT organizations doing about it all? Hiding the problem in the basement, for the most part.

"The No. 1 solution for IT disposal today is storage," said one recycling company VP quoted in our story. But physical storage, unlike the digital kind, is getting more expensive, and companies eventually run out of room. The cost of legitimate disposal is about $30 per PC. When you multiply that by hundreds or thousands of machines per company, the desire to avoid that bill entices some into foolishly (and illegally) cutting corners. "You can still get a guy in a little red truck to haul away your PCs, so nobody wants to focus on this issue," as one IT exec put it.

But focus on it you should. Companies like health care provider Kaiser Permanente are taking proactive approaches to dealing with end-of-life computer equipment, such as including disposal terms and conditions upfront in vendor purchase agreements. Our story is packed with ideas like that one and other practical tips and protective measures. We also offer some sample documents online that show how one Fortune 500 company is vetting equipment disposal vendors and crafting legally sound disposal requirements.

So, grab your broom and open that basement door.

Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact her at maryfran_johnson@computerworld.com.

See more editorials by Maryfran Johnson.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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