Sustainable By Design: Keeping E-Waste Out Of The Landfill

By Anne Cosgrove

Published in the August 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Virtually every organization contributes to electronic waste (or e-waste) with millions of pounds being disposed of each year. With rapid advances in technology resulting in increasingly quick turnover of computers and other electronic items, facility managers involved in the purchase, maintenance, and disposal of computers, telephones, televisions, and other electronic equipment are in a position to help reroute these objects from the landfill when they are done with them.

Through recycling and reuse efforts, many items can be given a second life. Materials potentially harmful to the ecosystem can be diverted from landfill soil or incinerators. Instead, these substances—which include lead, arsenic, beryllium, and cadmium—can be extracted when disassembling the items into their various components.

While some regulations on e-waste are uniform throughout the country, state and local rules vary. Color cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which are found in computer monitors and televisions, are an example of items under a uniform rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These CRTs contain significant amounts of lead, and the EPA has outlined disposal procedures in its hazardous waste rules. Since state, county, and local rules may be more stringent, facility managers can check with those governments to find out the various disposal requirements on e-waste.

So whether a facility manager is motivated by the law or an altruistic sense of responsibility for the environment, there are sustainable alternatives to throwing e-waste in the dumpster. Recycling these items is one option—and one that may be required. Many municipal and county recycling facilities are equipped to accept e-waste from businesses and other organizations. However, some do not have the capability to handle high volumes.

Facility managers can also obtain the services of a private recycling firm. The services offered by these companies can run the gamut from simple disassembly down to the extraction of precious metals. Those companies that do not handle items all the way to the end of the process will send along the remaining components downstream to firms that will handle the next step until all the materials have been gleaned.To ensure their items are being handled in an environmentally responsible manner, facility managers can do some research when deciding upon a recycling service. The National Recycling Coalition (NRC), an organization of recycling professionals and advocates, advises making sure a company meets all applicable state and local regulatory requirements. The NRC also recommends making sure the firm properly manages the recovered materials.

Facility managers can ask where the company sends the salvaged materials to—and can look into those companies as well. Downstream recyclers, especially metal refineries, are sometimes located outside of the United States, which can make it difficult to research those operations. While some countries have been pro-active in establishing regulations to monitor electronics recycling, others do not monitor as closely. To assist in this, the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER) provides on its Web site a listing of both international and domestic recycling firms.

A recycling company should also give facility managers a recycling certificate, documenting that the process was performed. “The certificate is a basic item to expect,” says Thory Monsen, operations manager at PC Recycler, Inc., based in Albany, NY.

Founded in 2003, PC Recycler handles a variety of equipment, including computer monitors, terminals, keyboards, telephone equipment, and cell phones. “The majority of what we receive from customers consists of computer and telephone equipment,” Monsen says.

The company disassembles the items it receives and sends the resulting components downstream to companies that further break down and extract materials. Ultimately, all those parts make their way to a location where they are used again to make a new product.

Electronics manufacturers have become increasingly involved in the recycling and reuse of their products. Many computer manufacturers, for instance, offer collection and recycling services to both small and large organizations. Some companies accept only equipment that is their brand, while others will take any brand of computer equipment.

The Rethink Initiative, a collaboration of eBay, industry, government, and environmental organizations, is a network through which both businesses and households can find resources, including companies that will process their electronics for recycling or reuse purposes. The details of these programs vary, with some charging a fee and others offered for free.

In 2004, Hewlett-Packard, a participant in the Rethink Initiative, recycled 120 million pounds of computer and printer hardware and supplies worldwide. In order to accept used equipment, the company charges a fee based on volume and will handle any equipment brand.

Often, manufacturers that take back computers for recycling send the equipment to private recycling firms like PC Recycler. “Since we have started, pretty much every major computer company has adopted electronic recycling policies,” says Monsen. “They outsource to smaller companies like us. The awareness has definitely increased.”

Many recycling services offer facility managers the opportunity to derive value from their old equipment that can be used again in some capacity. These companies will offer cash or a credit toward recycling services, depending on the determined value.

PC Recycler offers this type of service through its residual recovery program. “We give credit back for equipment with residual value,” explains Monsen. “If there are computers that can be resold, we will resell those items on the client’s behalf and credit back a portion to them toward other recycling they may do.”

Organizations with a relatively quick turnover of equipment might benefit from this type of program. “We work with some contractors who turn over their equipment every two years. Most of their items have residual value,” continues Monsen.

Dell, another participant of the Rethink Initiative, has a value recovery service through which organizations can receive cash for their old equipment that Dell resells. Asset recovery programs like these can help to offset the costs of sending electronic equipment to be recycled.

If facility managers want to go another route, donating their equipment is an option. Likely recipients include schools and non-profit associations. However, it is important to note that out of date computer systems can be more of a burden than a blessing to these organizations as the cost to bring them up to speed can be prohibitive. Equipment can be donated to recyclers or refurbishers as another option.

Another thing to consider when donating equipment is that facility managers cannot be sure of where the item will be sent when the recipient finally retires it. However, the advantage of extending the life cycle of the equipment can make this a viable option.

Data security is also an important aspect of disposing computers and other equipment that contain sensitive information. In order to ensure that no one downstream will be able to access any information, hard drives must be wiped of all information. Simply deleting the data is not a foolproof method, as there are programs that can retrieve it.

Many recyclers offer data security services. It is sometimes unclear whose domain this falls under—facility management or IT. Jeremy Farber, president of PC Recycler, advises that these two departments communicate what will be done to delete the data, both in-house and at the recycling facility.

“Before anything gets discarded,” Farber says, “facility managers should consult with IT managers to find out who will take responsibility for this.”

In addition to recycling and reuse, facility managers can extend the life of electronics while they are being used in their organization. This can be done by purchasing equipment with the EPA Energy Star label, because those items are designed to run efficiently. Routine maintenance on equipment will also help to prolong its useful life in the organization.

While facility managers can help stem the tide of e-waste piling up in landfills, manufacturers have the opportunity to reduce environmental threats at the source. Many companies have been working to find methods and materials that take the health of the environment into account.

While the function of electronics requires that the use of more environmentally friendly materials must also be technologically feasible, there has been progress. Intel, for example, has been working on developing lead-free manufacturing standards and processes. The company is exploring the use of silicon to replace lead in certain functions and released its first products with this material in 2001.

According to a 1999 study from the National Safety Council (NSC), the average lifespan of a personal computer will have decreased from 41/2 years in 1992 to about two years in 2005. The NSC study also predicted that by this year, more than 250 million personal computers will have become obsolete. With statistics like these, it is clear that action to keep e-waste items out of landfills is crucial. Facility managers are in a position to make a difference in this effort.

Information for this article was obtained, in part, through interviews with Farber and Monsen. To find out more, visit the U.S. EPA (, National Recycling Coalition (, PC Recycler (, International Association of Electronics Recyclers (, the Rethink Initiative (, and the National Safety Council (