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Businesses find unloading old hardware can be challenging

Chad Wages managed a strained chuckle. Like other business and organizations across the state and nation, he is faced with an issue that is becoming less and less of a laughing matter — what to do with old computer equipment?

“I’ve got a storage building full of old equipment as we speak,” said Wages, principal at the engineering firm Mendrop~Wages in Ridgeland. “It’s a small pile now, but it’s growing and becoming more and more of a problem.”

Wages said his firm has looked at simply throwing the equipment away. “We have talked about just chunking it in the dumpster,” he said, “but I don’t know what the rules and regulations are for that. That’s what we need to find out.”

The problem of unwanted computer hardware piling up is certainly not unique to Mendrop~Wages or state businesses and organizations. It is becoming a national issue.

According to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), electronic waste makes up a mere 2% of the total municipal waste in the U.S. However, it is growing at a rate three times faster than any other waste material.

Recent studies have found that more than 70% of computer products are currently disposed of in landfills. It has been estimated that Americans dispose of 12-14 million computers annually, a number that is expected to grow to 60 million units in the next five years.

Take my computer… please

On the surface, it seems the easiest options for unloading old computers is either give it away or simply throw it out. However, both options are not as viable as they appear.

Donating old equipment isn’t as easy as it once was, said John Bullington, director of information systems at Central Mississippi Medical Center (CMMC) in Jackson and a nearly 30-year veteran of the IT industry.

The hospital, which houses approximately 500 PCs, recently completed a major computing upgrade, creating an excess of used equipment. Fortunately, the Amite School Center contacted him looking for hardware donations. Bullington was more than happy to help. But, he said that situation is becoming less and less common.

“Organizations are particular about the PCs they want,” he said. “If it won’t run the latest software and applications, they’re not interested. And, we have to wipe off all the software, meaning they’re getting a machine, but no programs. Software has gotten so expensive that many organizations turn the equipment down.”

Courtland Gray, executive vice president at Peavey Electronics, agreed.

“The folks you’re donating to want good, new, state-of-the-art equipment,” said Gray, who estimated Peavey’s PC inventory at nearly 1,000. “We have found a few people who make treasures out of our trash.”

Scott Phillips, manager of information services at On-Site Fuel Service in Flowood, said obsolete PCs are not his company’s problem, which is a good thing since he, too, has found donating difficult if not impossible. He said On-Site squeezes as much life out of its PCs as possible, upgrading and refurbishing them to last nearly a decade.

Where On-Site is challenged is with its hand-held units that have gotten long in the tooth.

“We have about 70 drivers, and each one has a hand-held computer for data collection,” he said. “The model that we use is no longer in production. We can only get them refurbished.

“We’re looking to phase out this model over the next few months. We will then sell the old units to the company that refurbishes them. So, yes, obsolescence is a real problem.”

So, if giving “digital dinosaurs” away is not viable, why not just throw them away? For one, trashing old equipment is not environmentally responsible. Moreover, it can cost a company if proper disposal procedures are not followed.

Computing hardware, especially monitors, contains a number of hazardous materials, including lead and mercury and/or cadmium. All generators of waste, except households, are responsible for determining if their wastes are hazardous.

For businesses, the amount of hazardous waste produced determines whether it can be just “chunked in the dumpster” or not.

DEQ regulations allow businesses that produce less than 220 pounds of hazardous waste (including computer monitors) per month to dispose of computer equipment as normal solid waste. However, they must add the weight of the computer monitors proposed for disposal to the quantity of all hazardous waste materials to determine if the generators will exceed 220 pounds in a given month. And, businesses that produce between 2,200 pounds or more per month must manage their computer monitors as hazardous waste due to the lead content.

In addition, monitors must be stored in a manner that protects them from breakage, and monitors must be manifested when transported to a hazardous waste storage or disposal facility. In other words, businesses and organizations are responsible to know the rules and regulations and to follow them. Ignorance is no excuse.

Finally, there is another hazard with this waste. If hard drives are not wiped clean, others could obtain sensitive personal and/or business information.

In the end, the most viable option for getting old equipment from under foot is recycling. According to the DEQ, recycling is becoming more and more popular, and there are a number of organizations across Mississippi offering computer/electronics recycling programs, as well as recycling events focused specifically on computer hardware and electronics.

For more information on recycling old computers, regulations on disposal and related topics, visit the DEQ’s Web site at http://www.deq.state.ms.us/.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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