Hazardous Waste: Getting Rid of Old Computer Hardware

By Steven Rowe
Wed, November 15, 2000

CIO — Imagine sitting in your office absorbed in the logistics of your ERP implementation when the telephone jars you out of your reverie. Your CEO is on the line, your general counsel is sitting by his side, and they demand to see you right away. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified a local landfill as a contaminated site and has just fingered your company as a potentially responsible party in a massive $20 million cleanup.

So what’s this got to do with you? Well, hazardous materials found at the site include the stuff you’d typically find in computer hardware, and your CEO wants you to account for every piece of discarded equipment you’ve shipped to the dump. Talk about a headache. You not only have to take time to deal with this situation, but you may have caused your company hundreds of thousands of dollars in liability—not to mention the bad publicity it’ll receive when it’s deemed to be a polluter.

Not many CIOs wear hard hats. But every CIO is responsible for the wastes his company generates, and there are real environmental dangers associated with discarded electrical and electronic equipment. (See "IT’s Dirty Secret," CIO, Aug. 1, 2000.) Obsolete PCs, monitors, keyboards and mice may seem harmless, but they contain such hazardous substances as lead, cadmium, mercury, asbestos and beryllium. In fact, the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (www.moea.state.mn.us) reports that cathode ray tubes—commonly found in computer monitors—have become the second-largest source of lead in the state’s waste stream, after auto batteries. And as early as 1986, the EPA estimated that almost a quarter of lead in municipal waste streams came from consumer electronics—a percentage that’s increasing as the electronic age expands. Meanwhile, the life span of a typical PC is shrinking to the point that by 2005, we’ll need approximately 170 million cubic feet of space—or roughly one acre piled 4,000 feet high—to accommodate obsolete hardware, according to a recent Carnegie Mellon University study.

This means that while you’re managing the abundance of high-speed information going out your company’s front door, you’d better be managing the hardware going out the back. You don’t want to find yourself getting grilled in a deposition on what you did or didn’t do to properly dispose of your electronic waste stream. So you need to develop a waste-disposal plan today that can protect your company from liability tomorrow.

Legal Pitfalls

Your major source of potential waste-disposal liability is 1980’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), otherwise known as the Superfund law. Under CERCLA, the EPA identifies contaminated sites, arranges for cleanup, identifies responsible parties and seeks compensation for the cleanup costs. Many of these sites are landfills where you’d typically send your trash, including obsolete computer equipment. Once you’ve been targeted, you can always choose to fight the EPA in federal court instead of paying what it has assessed. But more likely than not, you’ll find yourself embroiled in costly, expert-intensive litigation over your company’s environmental impact on soil, drinking water, surface and groundwater, and the toxicity of its waste. And unless you can prove you never deposited so much as a printer cartridge or a half-empty bottle of nail polish at that site, you’ll be on the hook.

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