How CIOs can help curb e-waste

Many have seen it: that picture of a small child playing in a heap of discarded metal scraps and wires in a Third World country. Images such as these have raised awareness about a fact of life in the computer era that's tainting corporate brands and creating a huge environmental problem: electronic waste.

From cellphones to servers, electronics discarded due to real or perceived technological obsolescence are a mounting concern around the world. Why? In part, it's because millions of devices, developed with large investments of energy and natural resources, are finding their way into landfills that are not equipped to deal with the hazardous materials used in electronics. Discarded electronics not only represent missed opportunities for recycling precious metals (ferrous metal, aluminum, copper); they also release toxic materials (mercury, cadmium, lead) into our land, water and air.

What role does a CIO play in controlling e-waste? CIOs manage or heavily influence many areas of the business that play a role in the disposal of electronic equipment.

E-waste policies. CIOs are often responsible for IT purchases and life-cycle management. With effective policies at all stages of an asset's life cycle, they can minimize and manage e-waste.

Purchases. When making IT purchases, up-front consideration of how disposal of those products will be managed can help reduce e-waste and cut handling costs. Not all assets are created equally. Some have reusable or recyclable components, some contain more hazardous materials than others, and some are covered by return programs under which the manufacturer assumes responsibility for appropriate disposal.

Reduce. One way to reduce e-waste is to reduce consumption. By adopting purchase policies with longevity in mind, CIOs can extend asset life cycles by simply using equipment longer.

Reuse. Purchases that allow mixing and matching of components -- for example, power cables, hard disks and peripherals -- can maximize equipment reuse, extend life cycles and reduce e-waste. The more unique a piece is, the less likely it is to be upgraded or widely compatible and reusable with other equipment.

Recycle. Despite efforts to reduce consumption and reuse equipment, most electronics will still require disposal. A comprehensive e-waste policy should address recycling of products whose manufacturers don't have take-back programs. CIOs can contract with companies that collect surplus equipment, follow secure data-wiping processes, refurbish equipment (if possible), disassemble electronics to recover precious metals and recyclable materials, and appropriately handle hazardous waste and minimize landfill.

Community outreach. Stepping away from the supply chain, there are opportunities to reduce e-waste with the side benefit of improving your company's image. CIOs can use their influence to reach out to employees and members of their communities and educate them about the need for waste reduction.

Employees can play a big role by thinking about ways to reduce e-waste at all stages of the asset life cycle, including initial requests for equipment and all phases of use and maintenance.

By stepping out front, CIOs can minimize future headaches as well as potential fines and bruises to the company's reputation, all while helping to clean up the planet and potentially make a contribution to the bottom line.

Candace Labelle is director for the GreenWay program at CSC, a technology services company. You can contact her at or visit

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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