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Computer recycling: What school CIOs need to know

Electronic devices represent the fastest-growing part of the world’s waste stream
Old computers await recycling at the certified Capital Area Corporate Recycling Council in Baton Rouge, La.

The boom in affordable laptops and mobile devices has left the clunky computers of the past piling up in storage rooms in many schools.

Recycling is the best way to properly dispose of outdated technology instead of allowing it to collect dust or to break down in landfills, says Jim Lynch, director of green technology at TechSoup Global, a nonprofit that connects charities and public libraries with tech products and services.

Electronic devices represent the fastest-growing part of the world’s waste stream, Lynch says. “Anything with a circuit board or battery has toxic material in it, including lead and cadmium,” Lynch says. “We don’t want this getting into the landfills” and polluting the water supply, he adds.

Recycling laws

There is no federal electronics recycling program. But 25 states have e-waste recycling laws that require equipment manufacturers such as Dell and Hewlett Packard to cover the cost of recycling for consumers.

However, only nine of these state laws cover schools, so districts must pay to recycle old technology. One solution is to have a recycling company hold a public e-waste event at the school, at which community members and the school can turn in obsolete equipment at no cost, Lynch says.

Since many school IT departments are understaffed, a teacher can make a class project out of researching recycling companies and organizing a school drive.

“This is a spectacular opportunity to learn about dealing with the cycle of materials in the modern world,” Lynch says. “Students can get real insight into how to deal with garbage in a good way.”

A list of recycling companies that are reputable and not involved with foreign dumping (selling e-waste to poor countries with weak environmental laws) can be found on the websites of the nonprofits R2 Solutions and e-Stewards, both of which are accredited by the Environmental Protection Agency.

CIOs also need to learn recycling or resale companies’ data destruction policies, Lynch says. All equipment that leaves schools needs to be wiped clean of data to protect student information, though it is an arduous task to clear records off of dozens of computers.

Reusing is the best form of recycling—it saves money and keeps things out of the waste stream, Lynch says. For example, a piece of IT equipment that is five-plus years old has almost no resale value—but it can be repurposed.

“If a school is only looking for online capabilities, it’s possible to use older equipment that has beefed up RAM if its only job is to get onto the internet,” Lynch says.

Since electronics contain so many reusable elements, recycling them conserves natural resources and avoids greenhouse gas emissions caused by manufacturing new products, according to the EPA. For example, recycling one million laptops saves energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 U.S. homes in a year, the group found.