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What happens to your device when you dispose of it?

by Scott Priest, Editorial Director

January 12, 2011

GRC Expert author William Newman recently posted a CEO checklist for 2011 with five major points for the upcoming year. His number 1 point is about how mobile computing is about to take the step forward that so many of us are expecting, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, and particularly their ability to be used in the business world.

He has a small point at the bottom of his explanation that stood out to me:

Finally, the move to sustainable mobility – such as the Our Mobile Generation program – will create ways in which highly toxic mobile devices of today can be made and used on a more environmentally friendly manner.

If you're like me, you read that and thought: What makes mobile devices so toxic? An iPod, for example, is some plastic, some metal, some technological gadgets -- what's the big deal.

My colleague Kristine Erickson noticed this as well and pointed me to the transcript of an episode of NPR's Fresh Air. The discussion revolved around exactly this -- how our increasing use (and subsequent disposal) of electronic devices, has created quite the environmental quandary. Many devices are winding up in landfills, whether it's here or in the Chinese or African countryside. S ome computers are being sent to Africa, where they are re-sold, or, frighteningly, where private data is extracted, resulting in cases of security leaks and identity theft.

"Not me," you say. "I don't throw my devices out. I recycle them." To that, Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network says you need to rethink things:

Well, it's those people that, you know, think they're doing the right thing. That's the sad irony of it. They go to a recycler. And the recycler makes all kinds of claims of being very environmentally sound. You can go and just see hundreds of these websites, if you Google around in your own neighborhood, for electronics recyclers.

What happened was when people starting discovering that this waste stream was growing so dramatically - you know, we're making 50 million metric tons a year now of electronic waste globally. When people found this out, they started going: Oh, my goodness. We can't put this hazardous material into our landfill. So they started passing laws and rules and regulations saying: Don't put it in the landfill. Let's try to divert this equipment to recycling.

So the business of recyclers became very lucrative, but recycler can be a recycler in name only. So these so-called recyclers have found out that that they can make a lot more money just exporting this material, because the U.S. laws completely allow it.


So in the port of Hong Kong alone, for example, the brokers there have told me about 100 containers a day are coming in from North America of electronic waste. So it's a massive trade. And what has happened is we've passed laws to make recycling becom e the password. And unfortunately, it's the password to a lot of very sad results.

The whole transcript is a fascinating read, and I encourage you to read it as you consider your move toward a more mobile computing experience. How many devices do you need, how many do you need to replace, and how often do you need to do it? 

And while the environmental part of it is indeed sad, the security angle is also frightening. The amount of information that we store on all kinds of devices is so large that disposing of these devices properly is of utmost importance.

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Lucy Swedberg

9/25/2013 8:51:30 PM

Interesting post, Scott. After reading it, I was immediately reminded of the interview we did with Luis Neves, VP of Corporate Responsibility at Deutsche Telecom. Recognizing the same "device waste" problem, Deutsche Telecom set up a really impressive take-back program. Through this program, the no-longer-wanted devices aren't exactly recycled, but refurbished, and put back into active use. Good stuff.
If you're interested, you can read our insiderPROFILES interview with Luis Neves here:

Scott Wallask

9/25/2013 8:51:30 PM

This type situation is why I never recycle anything that could store my information on it. I'll sooner swing a hammer to an old computer that has my personal info stored on it and then chuck it with my regular trash, than let someone else get a hold of it through recycling. That might make me paranoid, perhaps, but I feel a little less so after reading your post.

William Newman

9/25/2013 8:51:30 PM

As Bill McDonough says in "Cradle to Cradle": there is no "away." Electronic waste may not be in our back yard but it has to go into somebody's.

I use this YouTube clip in my International Management course at Northwood University to get the mind running around sustainability. It's a bit "tree huggish" but gets the point across. If you look at the triple bottom line there are economic as well as environmental impacts to making things toxic that we use every day.

William Newman

9/25/2013 8:51:30 PM

Here's another gem specifically on e-waste from The Story of Stuff project and Annie Leonard. Another great tutorial for my class.