E-Waste 101: How to Recycle IT Equipment & Reduce Impact

Learn to recycle e-waste responsibly with our short guide that includes tips on safe disposal, sustainable buying, and protecting the planet from electronic waste.

12 Min Read
pile of discarded electronic devices
Alamy

Much of the conversation surrounding sustainability and the IT industry today focuses on reducing the carbon emissions that stem from powering IT equipment.

But here's another major sustainability challenge that IT departments across the globe should address: e-waste. In many respects, e-waste is just as serious a scourge as carbon when it comes to harming the environment. On top of that, e-waste can also have a negative impact on health and quality of life in developing countries, and failure to manage e-waste properly may lead to governance and compliance issues.

For all these reasons, developing a plan to tackle e-waste should be a priority for any organization that owns IT equipment — since sooner or later, almost all of that equipment will turn into e-waste.

This guide breaks down everything IT organizations need to know about e-waste management, including where e-waste comes from, why it's harmful, and how to address e-waste challenges through effective electronics recycling and disposal.

E-waste, short for electronic waste, refers to electronic devices that are no longer used, especially those that contain harmful substances. For example, any of the following products may become e-waste once a business stops using them:

  • Servers

  • PCs

  • Mobile phones

  • Disk drives

  • Computer peripherals (like keyboards and mice)

  • Monitors and other display devices

The Lifecycle of Our Electronic Devices

To understand where e-waste comes from, let's look at the lifecycle that electronic devices typically follow.

Most devices pass through the following phases:

  • Acquisition: This is when an organization first introduces a new device.

  • Installation: New devices are installed, at which point they're ready for use.

  • Use: Once installed, users use devices on an ongoing basis.

  • Upgrade: In some — but not all — cases, devices are upgraded throughout their lifecycle. For example, an IT department might add more memory to a PC as a form of upgrade.

  • Decline: Electronic device decline happens either because physical components (like hard disks) begin to wear out or because a device's capabilities are no longer up to par with modern demands. For instance, a server may no longer have enough memory to handle the workloads hosted on it.

  • Phase-out: Organizations eventually phase out devices that are in decline and replace them with newer alternatives.

  • Disposal: Once phased out, devices are disposed of.

These phases of the electronic device lifecycle are inevitable. Although product longevity can vary depending on many factors, such as how much use a product sees and how it's maintained, almost no electronic device lasts forever. Indeed, most IT devices in use today see lifetimes of only five to 10 years before they reach the decline phase and become candidates for phase-out and disposal.

Understanding E-Waste and Its Impact on the Planet

Since discarding electronic devices is inevitable, so is e-waste. However, not all e-waste is properly discarded — and if it's not, it negatively impacts the planet in a number of ways:

  • Leaching harmful substances: Electronic devices may contain chemicals like lead, mercury, and chromium, which are harmful to plants, animals, and people. These substances can enter the environment when devices are dumped outdoors without efforts to remove or contain the chemicals.

  • Polluting dump sites: Discarded devices can crowd dump sites with garbage — and because many of the components inside devices, such as plastic, take centuries to break down, e-waste garbage can accumulate indefinitely. This problem is especially acute in developing countries, which tend to host dumping sites for e-waste.

  • Polluting air and water: In addition to creating eyesores and leaching chemicals in the local area where they're dumped, devices may pollute the air and/or water if they are burned or find their way into waterways. This means that the environmental harm caused by e-waste is not localized; it can affect people, plants, and animals hundreds of miles away from e-waste dump sites.

The Perils of Improper Disposal

From both a health and an environmental perspective, e-waste can have profoundly negative consequences.

Health Risks Associated with E-Waste

The most serious harmful health effect of e-waste is neurological issues, which can result from the lead and mercury inside discarded devices. The impact is especially acute on children.

In addition, some of the toxins in e-waste may cause cancer. For instance, chromium can be a carcinogen when inhaled.

Environmental Consequences of Unregulated Dumping

In addition to harming humans, e-waste can harm the environment in many ways.

For animals, e-waste can lead to health problems like mercury poisoning, an especially serious threat to sea life. (This type of poisoning may indirectly harm humans, too, if they consume animals that were poisoned with mercury from e-waste.) Evidence also shows that e-waste accumulation leads to a decline in bird populations.

In plants, e-waste can reduce growth and damage cell structures, contributing to deforestation. Going further, e-waste can harm animals that depend on healthy plants for food and shelter.

Beyond these environmental challenges, e-waste can reduce the quality of air and water, making natural environments inhospitable to people, plants, and animals alike.

Simple Steps to Responsible Recycling

To avoid contributing to problems like those described above, IT organizations should take steps to dispose of unused products effectively. The best way to do this is to recycle.

E-waste recycling allows for the reuse of devices that still function — or, if the device as a whole no longer works, you may be able to remove and reuse components within the device (like hard disks or memory sticks) that still work. Recycling also helps ensure that devices won't be dumped illegally in a place where they could harm the environment.  

Sorting Out Your Electronics for Recycling

To recycle electronic devices effectively, it's important to sort them, since different products often need to be recycled in different ways.

The specific recycling requirements for products that might otherwise become e-waste vary depending on what the products are and where you're recycling them. That said, general guidelines include:

  • Organize devices by types. For example, place monitors that you want to recycle in one box and computers in another one.

  • Disconnect any wires and place them in their own box.

  • Where possible, disassemble devices by, for example, separating plastic from metal.

  • If you know that any devices contain particularly harmful substances, label them accordingly and be sure to separate those devices from your general e-waste.

  • Remember to remove any sensitive data from storage devices before sending them to the recycling stream.

Locating Your Nearest E-Waste Facility

Locating facilities that will accept e-waste for recycling or disposal purposes can be challenging because there is no global database of appropriate facilities. But with a little work, you can likely locate a provider that will help you discard your equipment properly.

Start by contacting your municipality and asking about e-waste services. Some cities and towns offer e-waste management as part of standard trash collection and recycling services. If yours doesn't, they may be able to point you to an organization that will.

If your local government isn't helpful, some states — such as New York — also maintain databases of e-waste disposal and recycling facilities.

Finally, some private companies accept IT equipment, which they then either resell or dispose of. These services tend to be less flexible because they typically only accept certain types of equipment (like those used in data centers), but they also may prove more efficient if you're disposing of large numbers of PCs or servers.

Reducing E-Waste Through Smart Choices

In addition to taking steps to dispose of e-waste properly, businesses should also work to reduce the amount of e-waste they create in the first place through sustainable purchasing and lifecycle management.

Making Sustainable Purchasing Decisions

When buying IT equipment, consider the expected longevity and maintenance requirements of devices. Do vendors guarantee that devices will work for a fixed period of time? If so, you may be able to get more use out of them — and, by extension, reduce the frequency with which you turn devices into e-waste.

Consider, too, how easy it is to maintain or upgrade a device. If one component fails — for instance, if a smartphone battery no longer works — can your IT department fix it, or will the entire device turn into e-waste?

Extending the Life of Your Electronics

You can work to extend the life of electronics by maintaining them properly. This includes measures like checking for declining components on a periodic basis, then replacing them as needed. For example, SMART features can help assess hard disk health.

Upgrading instead of replacing products is another way to reduce e-waste. Before deeming a PC or server obsolete, consider whether you could add more memory to it and continue to use it.

Finally, avoid practices where you replace IT equipment based on arbitrary timelines. For example, instead of deciding that you'll replace all of your servers every five years, determine whether that's an appropriate policy based on the actual expected lifetime and usability of your servers. Premature disposal not only wastes money but generates avoidable e-waste.

Legislation and Corporate Responsibility

Managing e-waste properly isn't just the right thing to do environmentally. It's also a legal mandate in many places.

Understanding the Regulations Surrounding E-Waste 

In the United States, 25 states currently regulate electronics recycling. The European Union also has a regulation mandating proper management of e-waste.

The specific requirements vary, but in general, regulations require organizations to take reasonable measures to ensure that discarded electronics don't end up polluting the environment in preventable ways.

How Companies Are Addressing the E-Waste Challenge

Currently, companies are responding to e-waste regulations by making e-waste management a formal process — as opposed to something done in an ad hoc fashion, which is the approach many organizations traditionally took.

Today, e-waste management may be part of an organization's governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) strategy, since it has important implications for complying with regulatory standards — not to mention ESG priorities.

Leveraging Technology to Tackle E-Waste

Technology can make e-waste management more effective and efficient.

Innovations in E-Waste Management and Recycling

For example, businesses can leverage AI systems and robots to help sort products for e-waste recycling, with AI categorizing components and robots performing the physical sorting.

These solutions may not be worth the cost for small-scale e-waste management, but a business that disposes of thousands of devices each year could benefit from technological advancements to speed up e-waste recycling and reduce the burden it places on staff members' time.

Digital Tools to Help You Recycle More Effectively

In addition to cutting-edge technology like AI, e-waste management initiatives can benefit from simpler digital tools that help to track electronics efficiently.

For example, IT asset management (ITAM) software can help businesses inventory the devices they own and monitor how long they have been in use. This enables smart decisions about when and how to recycle devices. For instance, since recycling will typically be more efficient if you recycle a large number of the same type of device at once, ITAM software can help you decide when a critical mass of devices are approaching their expected end-of-life date and should be recycled.

Likewise, digital tools can track where devices end up once they're discarded. This may be important for proving to regulators that you are managing your e-waste responsibly.

FAQs: All Your E-Waste Questions Answered

What Exactly Is Considered E-Waste?

E-waste is any electronic device that is no longer in use and has the potential to harm the environment.

Some people use the term e-waste to refer specifically to devices that have been improperly discarded. But more generally, any product that is no longer in use and must be disposed of counts as e-waste, since all products have the potential to become harmful if they are not recycled or otherwise discarded responsibly.

How Can I Ensure My Data Is Safe When Recycling Electronics?

When recycling electronic devices, you can remove private data in one of two ways.

One approach is to delete data electronically from storage systems before recycling them. This is simple and allows for the devices to be reused. However, there is a risk that someone might find a way to recover data even after it has been deleted. Overwriting disks with "junk" data usually prevents this.

The other approach is to damage devices physically, to the point where they no longer operate. This guarantees the highest level of data privacy, but it prevents devices from being reused — so this method is best used for IT equipment that is so outdated as to have no potential for reuse.

Are There Any Incentives for Recycling Electronics?

Some e-waste recycling programs offer cash in exchange for recycled devices — although those programs may limit how many devices they accept, making them impractical for businesses with large-scale e-waste recycling needs.

In addition, some state and local governments offer tax credits to incentivize electronics recycling by businesses.

Can Electronics Be Repaired Instead of Recycled?

In many cases, repairing electronics is a great alternative to recycling them. Devices can often be repaired if the following are true:

  • Just one component has failed.

  • The failed component is easily accessible.

  • Replacement components are available.

Unfortunately, device manufacturers don't always make it easy to replace damaged components, since they have an incentive to force customers to buy replacement items instead of repairing ones they already own. (New laws, like New York's "Right to Repair" mandate, which requires device manufacturers to take reasonable measures to help consumers repair electronics on their own, may help to change this.) That's why it's important to assess repairability when purchasing IT equipment.

About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

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