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A Practice Conundrum: E-waste Disposal


Introduction:
Computers and related information technologies (workstations, scanners, printers, docking stations, personal digital assistants, hand-held diagnostic and screening tools, cell phones, servers, etc.) are the heart and soul of day-to-day business operations. These tools are a necessity for effective and efficient performance within todays healthcare climate.

Critical practice elements such as; maintenance and utilization of patient databases, e-charts, electronic patient health information requirements (re: HIPAA), marketing and educational outreach, billing, coding and reimbursement, rehab management and practice management, scanning technology and more, have placed a premium on the maximal use of technology in every healthcare practice.

The adoption of faster, more powerful, more able equipment to contribute significantly to productivity, efficiency, profitability and return on investment (ROI) no longer begs the question of Should I use the computer in my practice. Rather, the issue is How to use it to my best advantage. To this end, many healthcare practices have upgraded their computers three, four or more times in recent years.

The value of information technology for the contemporary healthcare practice is, therefore, well recognized. What is not so obvious is the seldom considered companion issue to the use of modern technology: the safe and cost-effective disposal of obsolete or unused technology, which we refer to as E-waste.

Rapid advances in computer technology has brought with it shorter useful equipment life for each successive generation of equipment. The useful life of a desktop computer purchased in 1997 was expected to be 6 to 7 years. By 2005, the average life span of a new desktop computer is expected to be 2 years (1).

Accelerating technological innovation and the associated decline in equipment useful life expectancy have produced an unintended consequence an accumulation of obsolete, broken, and unused computers.

Is E-waste disposal a problem I need to be concerned with?

In a word.YES.

The problem of how to safely dispose of outdated, unwanted information technology is huge and growing larger each year. For example, studies estimate that between 250 and 700 million desktop and laptop computers in the U.S. will soon be obsolete (2). Computers and associated information technology is the fastest growing portion of the waste stream; growing almost 3 times faster than the overall municipal waste stream. Complicating matters is the fact that the improper disposal of this equipment presents an environmental problem of enormous proportions

Some experts have predicted that the disposal of E-waste will be the 21st centurys most challenging toxic waste problem (3). This is largely due to PCBs, heavy metals (lead 27% of the weight of a CRT, mercury, cadmium, etc.) and other poisonous substances (e.g., hexavalent chromium, brominated flame retardants, etc.) contained in most high technology electronic equipment.

Do all retired computers wind up in the waste stream?

No. National statistics indicate that at present less than 15% of retired computers are sent to landfills, usually without the benefit of proper disposal preparation. An additional 5 to 10 percent of retired computers are sent to secondary markets for resale or salvage, or to community-based organizations such as schools, non-profits, etc., for possible reuse. Unfortunately re-use is not feasible with many older computers due to software incompatibility.

The remaining items, some 75 to 80 percent of all obsolete computers, fall into the ubiquitous stuff sitting around category. These items can be found in offices, homes, garages and warehouses where they may be quietly consuming physical and financial resources (e.g., insurance, space and inventory costs, etc.) that could otherwise be put to more productive use.

Who is responsible for the safe disposal of computers and other E-waste?

At present, local governments and individual consumers have primary responsibility for responding to the E-waste situation. The problem is compounded by the fact that you cant just throw your stuff in the trash or load it in the car and take it to the local landfill.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) restricts and prohibits improper disposal of many E-waste components (4). If you violate RCRA, you may be exposed to financial liabilities for failure to comply with increasingly stringent federal, state and local environmental regulations.

However, the issue of taxpayers paying for the results of manufacturing choices (i.e., use of toxic substances, heavy metals, etc.) which they did not choose, has not gone unnoticed.

There is a growing movement in this country to make manufacturers of technology assume responsibility for the disposal of their spent products. Many of the more than 50 pieces of state computer disposal legislation currently pending include the requirement that computer manufacturers establish take back programs. Such an approach would parallel European Union regulations which require electronics manufacturers to cover the cost of recycling at the end of their products useful life.

To deflect the imposition of mandated take-back programs, some U.S. computer manufacturers have taken action to address the problem of computer recycling.

Dell, for example, has announced it plans to introduce a lead-free computer by 2006. Other manufacturers have implemented programs to dispose of obsolete and unused equipment for a nominal fee. Still others address the disposal issue by offering a trade-in benefit for the purchase of new computer systems that includes disposal of obsolete or damaged equipment. Although these efforts are noteworthy, they are insufficient to resolve the computer disposal problem. This has led some to suggest that a point of sale disposal tax should be imposed to fund the proper recycling of this material.

How can I avoid computer/E-waste disposal problems?

In large part, leasing is the best way of avoiding the problem of computer/E-waste disposal. However, some important issues should be addressed if you decide to pursue this alternative. In this situation, the lease agreement will usually incorporate a pre-determined disposal charge, including instructions on how to prepare the equipment for return. In some cases, the amount of the disposal charge can be negotiated prior to signing the lease.

Another issue is properly sanitizing the computer upon termination of the lease. Sanitizing is necessary to remove sensitive and proprietary data from the hard drive in a manner that ensures it cannot be recovered. This procedure (sanitizing) can be costly and time-consuming. Whatever sanitizing actions are taken, you must be careful to not damage the leased equipment, which would likely incur damage charges. Even sanitized hard drives can yield recoverable confidential or personal information (e.g., credit card numbers, social security numbers, patient health information, etc.).

One example of such a situation occurred when a VA hospital scheduled more than a hundred sanitized computers for disposal. The hard drives of those computers were later found to contain a substantial amount of sensitive medical information, including the names of patients with AIDS and mental health problems.

Does my right to privacy extend to discarded materials?

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the right to privacy does not extend to discarded materials (5). This means you cannot claim a right of privacy or confidential interest in any computer that you inadequately protect or mistakenly consign for disposal.

Another factor to consider is that up to 80% of discarded computers that enter the waste stream go to China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines or Mexico (6). In this instance, searching discarded hard drives can constitute a simple means of espionage. In addition, the conventional practice of dumping e-waste in these countries can exacerbate poor environmental practices and contribute to the exploitation of the workers engaged in the recycling process.

What should I do with my old computer(s)?

There are no easy solutions to manage disposal of your obsolete or unused information technology. It is recommended that professionals take into account the following when considering the disposal of practice (and personal) computers:

  • Make a decision to get rid of your stuff for some as yet unexplained reason, parting with an old computer is hard to do.
     
  • Explore the possible benefits of computer equipment donations that may be available to you through the 21st Century Classrooms Act for Private Technology, and identify organizations that facilitate the donation of used computers.
     
  • Determine the requirements for best disposal practices in your area. Many communities now have designated computer pick-up days or resident drop-off centers.
     
  • Make sure to properly sanitize your hard drive simply reformatting a disk doesnt erase information; less than 1% of the blocks are overwritten, leaving 99% of the drive unaffected.
     
  • Identify computer recyclers in your area and find out if they pay for recyclable electronic equipment? Do they sanitize the hard drive (how do they do it and how much do they charge). Inquire what is done with the stuff they take (i.e., is it land filled, incinerated or shipped overseas). Socially conscious practitioners may get satisfaction from knowing their recycled computers are being processed by a non-incarcerated, free-market U.S. labor force and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.
     
  • Larger and/or multi-office practices may want to contact an IT asset recovery specialist that can manage the entire computer/IT disposal process including guaranteed sanitization.
     
  • Consider the lease option when obtaining new equipment.

Conclusion:
Todays hearing healthcare professional recognizes that faster, more powerful information technology can contribute significantly to productivity, profitability and return on investment. However, knowledge and experience regarding recycling/disposal of obsolete or unused equipment is seldom included in their inventory of core competencies.

This article has suggested ways the professional can consider to reduce the cost and potential risk of improper E-waste disposal when equipment in your information technology infrastructure reaches an end-of-useful life status.

REFERENCES:

1. Based on information from "Computer Display Industry and Technology Profile", EPA 744.R.98.005, December 1998 and figures presented by the National Safety Council, Washington DC, May 1999 "Electronic Product Recovery and Recycling Baseline Report"

2. Published estimates of the number of PC systems that will become obsolete by 2007 range between 250 million and 600 million. See for example Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, et al, Poison PCs and Toxic TVs: Californias Biggest Environmental Crises That Youve Never Heard Of, June 19, 2001, at http://www.svtc.org/cleancc/pubs/poisonpc

3. C. W. Schmidt, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 110, No. 4, April 2002.

4. Hazardous Waste Management System; Modification of the Hazardous Waste Program; Cathode Ray Tubes and Mercury-Containing Equipment; Proposed Rule (EPA) 40 CFR Part 260 et al., June 12, 2002.

5. California versus Greenwood, 486 US 35, 16 May 1988.

6. K. A. OConnell, Computing the DAMAGE, Waste Age, October, 2002.

Dr. Popp is the owner of Sound Advice Management Consultants located in Centerville, OH. He is the author of several textbooks including The Hearing Healthcare Practitioners Handbook [NAIAP, 2002] and numerous articles in academic and professional journals. Comments regarding this article should be directed to SoundAdviceMC@aol.com.

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