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Responsible electronics stewardship: A guide to purchasing and recycling equipment that makes the grade

Responsible and environmentally friendly recycling of old or unwanted electronics limits the risk of toxins entering water and air through landfills.

Technology is essential to the modern classroom: computers, tablets, and eReaders give educators and students extraordinary access to interactive resources that connect, inform, inspire, and entertain. Unfortunately, technology can be expensive to operate, becomes obsolete quickly, and create mountains of eWaste if not disposed of properly.

The test for school systems is to maximize IT budgets while avoiding the downsides of essential technology upgrades. To pass it, purchasers should adopt “green purchasing” approaches, which means considering all stages of a product’s life cycle and buying electronics that are designed and manufactured to not only minimize their impact on the environment at the beginning, but also at the end. Readily recyclable electronics boost the recovery of materials such as aluminum, copper, glass, and plastic for use in new products, and recycling these devices diverts potentially toxic substances from landfills.

To save green, buy green

All purchasing choices affect the environment. The objectives of green purchasing are to assess a product’s total impact on the environment – from manufacturing to acquisition to disposal – and make decisions that curb pollution and waste. Selecting energy-efficient electronics reduces polluting emissions from power plants on a daily basis. Selecting fully and easily recyclable electronics also cuts pollution and conserves valuable resources as products reach the end of their useful life.

There are two tools available to help purchasers choose manufacturers that produce electronics with fewer hazardous materials, greater energy efficiency, and recyclable material. ENERGY STAR and EPEAT specifications help buyers compare the energy-saving and environmental features of thousands of available electronics products.

The ENERGY STAR label was launched to make it simpler for consumers to identify and purchase energy-efficient products, thereby decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants resulting from the wasteful use of energy. More than 27,000 electronics products in 60 different categories meet ENERGY STAR specifications set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.

Energy costs represent a typical school district’s second largest operating expense after salaries—more than the cost of computers and textbooks combined, according to the EPA. Using ENERGY STAR rated electronics in your facilities can reduce energy use, save money and protect the environment. For instance, the EPA estimates that if all computers sold in the United States met ENERGY STAR guidelines, the savings in energy costs would grow to $1.8 billion each year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from more than 2 million vehicles.

The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, is another product certification that looks beyond energy consumption to additional environmental aspects of electronics.  Launched in 2006 and managed by the Green Electronics Council, the registry currently lists computer desktops, laptops, notebooks, workstations and displays that meet the requirements of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 1680 family of Environmental Assessment Standards. This year, EPEAT will release product standards developed through the IEEE that cover imaging equipment and televisions.

EPEAT-registered products meet strict environmental criteria—from fewer toxins used in manufacturing to efficient operation and easier recycling. EPEAT-registered products offer a reduced environmental impact across their life cycles. Products are measured against both required and optional criteria. A product must meet all required criteria in its category to be added to the registry. Search terms such as “mercury elimination” or “recycled content” can be used to explore EPEAT’s database to identify products that meet specific requirements.

Whether you opt to use ENERGY STAR or EPEAT to help guide your purchasing decisions, look for these product attributes when evaluating electronics:

  • Lower levels of lead, mercury and other heavy metals, as well as beryllium, brominated flame retardants, and polyvinyl chloride to decrease health and safety risks during processing for reuse and recycling;
  • Increased use of renewable or recycled materials, which relieves pressure on nonrenewable resources;
  • Upgradable, reusable or recyclable components;
  • Manufactured with a smaller number of plastics that can be easily disassembled for parts recovery and material separation to facilitate recycling;
  • Reduced packaging, which decreases resource consumption and carbon emissions from shipping; and
  • Participation in take-back programs that make manufacturer’s responsible for proper disposal.

Reusable + upgradable = sustainable

Electronics with more environmentally sustainable designs reduces their carbon footprint, extends their usable life, and makes them simpler and safer to initially reuse and ultimately recycle.

Equipment that meets these specifications will often feature modular designs that make  hardware installation and memory upgrades simple. Steer clear of electronics that require special tools for removing or replacing batteries or parts. Choose instead equipment assembled with latches, or snap construction that allow for quick access to internal components and can be readily repaired or upgraded. These attributes extend a device’s average lifespan
Also keep in mind that universal components—hard drives, peripherals, power cables and chargers—can extend equipment life cycles, increase equipment reuse and decrease electronic waste. Standardization of your electronic and IT equipment means devices will be widely compatible and reusable with other equipment.

Responsible recycling

Reusing and upgrading electronics is the optimal green purchasing approach because it reduces the need to manufacture new equipment. This cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and conserves the maximum amount of energy.

Inevitably, however, even cutting-edge technology will lose its edge—electronic devices will become obsolete or broken beyond repair—resulting in electronic waste that responsible purchasers should vigilantly recycle. In 2009, the EPA estimated only 25 percent of the 2.37 million tons of electronics ready for end-of-life management were collected for recycling, making electronics the fastest growing waste stream in the United States. Numbers like these underscore the need for having a comprehensive disposal plan in place before replacing old technology.

Responsible and environmentally friendly recycling of old or unwanted electronics limits the risk of toxins entering water and air through landfills. In fact, recycling 1 million laptops alone saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year, according to the EPA. Unfortunately, not all electronics recyclers operate to the same standards. There are several important steps school officials need to take before selecting a recycler to ensure electronics are properly and safely dismantled and processed.

Safeguard your data. Be aware that your school or district remains responsible for the data in your computers even after their retirement and a data breach can potentially lead to identity theft and violations of federal and state privacy laws. Regardless of your school’s internal data destruction protocols, be sure the recycler offers data destruction compliant with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to make certain all employee and student data is erased before recycling.

Check for certifications. A certified recycler is committed to not only operating in compliance with recycling industry best practices that govern environmental, health, and safety management systems (R2, e-Stewards, ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001), but is also implementing the latest standards that regulate information destruction (NAID) and the secure handling, warehousing and transportation of equipment (TAPA).

Develop a plan. Look for a recycler that can create a customized recycling plan for your school and offers the additional services you may require, such as collection and transportation support; product inventory, including serial number capture; product tracking and product refurbishment and reuse. The best recyclers offer a complete range of remarketing and recycling services internally, which eliminates reliance on subcontractors and improves accountability and security.

Ask questions. With whom does the recycler do business? Request the names and locations of a recycler’s downstream partners. Some recyclers only collect material for recycling, but do not actually process the equipment. Not knowing where your electronics are being recycled could put your school—and the environment—at risk. Determine whether the recycler conducts audits to ensure these vendors process and handle materials, such as shredded and separated plastic, aluminum and glass, in an environmentally responsible manner.

When done conscientiously, reusing and recycling electronics presents school districts with an opportunity to become better environmental stewards – and to demonstrate to their students that protecting the earth’s resources is something they not only preach, but practice.

Steve Skurnac is the president of Sims Recycling Solutions, the global leader in electronics reuse and recycling – 1-888-234-9967 –

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