Discarded electronic devices constitute the fastest growing waste stream in the UK and Europe. This has spawned a raft of legislation — aimed at manufacturers, waste professionals and end users — designed to tackle this burgeoning problem.
Perhaps the best known of the measures drafted by the EU to control the e-waste problem, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, has caused a lot of disquiet in the business community.
The main impact of the directive, which comes into force from June 2006, is to force manufacturers, retailers and importers of electronic equipment to be responsible for its eventual disposal.
Businesses and other end-users of technology will still have a responsibility for the disposal costs of historical waste and with the directive scheduled for review in 2008 there are suggestions that there might be further responsibilities for businesses in the future.
Although there is a lot of emphasis being placed on WEEE, there are other pieces of legislation surrounding the disposal of IT kit that are equally important. Some have crept up on both the private and the public sector — perhaps overshadowed by the emphasis that has been placed on legislation including WEEE and the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (ROHS) directive.
Each piece of legislation constitutes part of a larger jigsaw of measures governing electronic waste disposal and it is important that businesses understand the full picture.
Most notable has been the recent introduction of the Hazardous Waste Regulations, which replace the older Special Waste system and incorporate the European Waste Catalogue (EWC). The EWC, in existence since 1993 and having undergone a number of revisions, essentially categorises products and materials as hazardous or non-hazardous.
Introduced on 16 July this year the regulations, crucially, define a range of new products as hazardous that previously were not; the CRTs used in both computer monitors and televisions are a key addition.
Previously sent to landfill without any level of control, CRTs — with their leaded glass screens — are fundamentally hazardous. The risks they pose when...
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...consigned to the ground, in terms of leaching lead into the water table and soil, is one of the major driving forces behind the new regulations.
Why is this so important to businesses and other organisations using electronic equipment?
A key factor is the level at which the regulations begin to bite; in essence, anybody who generates more than 200kg of hazardous waste per annum has an obligation to register with the Environment Agency.
When you consider that an average CRT monitor weighs between 17kg and 19kg, having more than 10 redundant computer monitors is likely to bring the owner under the remit of the regulations.
With the Environment Agency tasked with policing the regulations and controlling the disposal of waste, businesses and public bodies have to confirm whether they are producers of hazardous waste and demonstrate that they have measures in place to deal with it.
Having an effective and demonstrable solution is no longer a matter of showing your organisation’s commitment to corporate social responsibility; it's now a legal requirement.
Once an organisation has registered with the Environment Agency, and with strict rules in place for the safe transport and processing of hazardous material, they have to demonstrate that they are disposing of the waste responsibly.
Unregulated practices for electronic equipment disposal — typified by the 'white van' taking away disused products from premises, no questions asked — are no longer acceptable.
Landfill site operators are controlled by new Waste Acceptance Criteria (WAC), which applies to all hazardous waste. These prohibit landfill operators from accepting untreated hazardous waste, such as CRT monitors, and they must have procedures in place to ensure that only compliant and pre-treated waste is land-filled. Previously, there were in excess of 200 landfill sites across England and Wales able to accept the material, whereas less than ten are now licensed to do so. As a result, legitimate operators will not accept untreated waste arriving from dubious sources.
Equally, the 'white van' option is ruled out by...
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...the requirement for hazardous waste to be transported under a waste carrier licence. What used to be an open forum for illegitimate waste disposal is now being closed very tightly.
Alongside the Hazardous Waste regulations, the Batteries Directive — expected to be introduced into the UK next year — focuses on the collection, treatment and recycling of batteries. For any organisation using servers, laptops or PDAs, for example, this directive affects them.
But when it comes to dealing with electronic waste and recycling, the risks are not all presented by environmental legislation.
Organisations need to be mindful of the Data Protection Act if any data-bearing equipment is leaving their care — and in-house erasing of data is not a reliable method of destroying sensitive material, as most organisations have no solution for removing data from faulty hard disk drives, short of driving a nail through them.
Unlike a pile of disused computer monitors, data tends to be less tangible as a potential legal threat. But the fines and penalties are as onerous as those associated with environmental offences.
What is an organisation to do?
Firstly, the job role of managing end-of-life electronic equipment needs to be assigned, in order that responsibility does not slip between IT, operations, finance or facilities management.
Then, a professional waste and asset management partner is needed, which will provide the organisation with a thorough understanding of their current liabilities and a strategy for how to deal with them.
As a priority, this strategy should ensure that nobody falls foul of compliance issues. In turn, if there is any value to be harnessed from the redundant assets — in terms of refurbishment and reselling of equipment — the partner company should know how to maximise it.
Finally, if there is no inherent value and it is — essentially — waste, it needs to be disposed of legally and at minimum cost to the organisation.
Traditionally, there has been little or no budgeting for removal of old IT equipment and the many relied on the "white van" taking it away for nothing. As the no-cost option is no longer a legitimate option, organisations need to make provision and implementing a strategy can actually ensure that disposal is not a cost to the business but a valuable return on investment. The real danger is in the opposite approach where failure to act professionally leads an organisation into a minefield of costs, litigation and potentially highly damaging publicity.
There will still be those who, either willingly or through sheer ignorance, will play Russian roulette with asset disposal but the risks of playing this game are only increasing.Steve Russell, is managing director of BTR UK, an IT asset management company specialising in the safe and secure disposal of end-of-life technology.