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IT Doesn't Have It Easy, Trying to Be Green

What's the fastest growing "waste stream" in the United States? It's "e-waste" - and it's incredibly toxic. A monitor might contain 3-9 pounds of lead. Circuit boards contain beryllium, cadmium, and many other toxic elements and compounds. But it d'esn't seem that many IT staffers accept much responsibility for trying to "be green," or at least greener. We should, because if we don't, someone's going to come along and make us do it.

Really? Yes. A series of news items recently got the attention of manufacturers, when mounds of broken and discarded IT equipment were shown in photographs - photographs which also included small children from third world countries, where that equipment had been dumped by end-disposers, playing in it - playing in the toxic waste that used to be on our desk.

Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and IBM each offers some sort of computer return and/or recycling program now, but there is little evidence that colleges and universities are taking advantage of it. In fact, in the promotional literature for a recent one-day "return your toxic computer waste" collection efforts at a major institution, potential recyclers were explicitly warned not to try to return equipment owned by the university. The program was just for personal equipment.

Of course, that may be because the institution involved is into responsible recycling of its own equipment and wants to do it in more methodical ways, including:

· Writing contracts with vendors for such recycling and waste disposal that protect the institution from liability due to noncompliance with various state and federal regulations; and
· Ensuring proper erasure of potentially significant private or proprietary data from hard drives and other storage devices first.

The latter may seem obviously more important than the former, but just imagine the hit to your college's "brand" if more pictures of little children playing with improperly-disposed-of toxic IT equipment were published - and your institution could be identified in the pictures or by the reporter as having been the source? Not to mention the bad karma, even without the public revelation.

The linkage between IT and sustainability is something we have mentioned here before. Among other things, each has flowered as a result of systems thinking. Early programmers coded as tightly as possible (which sort of ended up causing the Y2K hullabaloo a few years ago) and until we all realized that disc storage space was in fact growing faster than we could use it up, we used to spend a lot of time devising ways to pack the most information, usefully, into the smallest space. (Well, some of us still do. I don't.)

But higher education institutions are nearly unique in their responsibility to operate in sustainable ways and to at the same time be teaching sustainability principles; modeling it while training it. It's not a good sign for "modeling sustainability" if you randomly open the lids of half a dozen dumpsters on campus and see electronic equipment parts inside two of them, as I recently did on a campus that shall remain nameless.

Some top corporations are building the disposal (recycling) costs of IT equipment into their overall purchase budgets. Guess how much it costs. Here's a shocking fact: One company that d'es it on a very large scale and therefore gets economies of scale estimates a cost-to-dispose for each PC of $18.40 and a cost-to-dispose for each monitor of $23.71.

Of course, you can just pay the fellow who shows up with the red pickup truck $5 each to take them away. But then you might find, as another company did, that you've got a telephone call from the EPA asking what your monitors are doing half-buried out in a field somewhere. (Unless you spend a lot of time removing serial numbers and other identifiers from them.)

Is that what happens to your old equipment? I bet you don't even know for sure.

My prediction is that we in IT are going to have to pay more attention. We're going to have to build in recycling costs up front, as part of the overall life cycle of equipment costs, and we're going to have to build into that, costs to safely recycle our machines - which are among the most toxic of consumer and professional products that exist.

You might not care that much if your old machines end up in an inappropriate landfill, but if they do, your institution will care, because the EPA is a little bit tougher even than the law enforcement officials involved in the "Alice's Restaurant" tune.

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