IT waste: the new environmental hazard

IT waste: the new environmental hazard

It's a worldwide phenomenon. The average PC sold into corporate accounts will take around seven years before it enters the local waste stream. Experts are concerned that Australia is on the brink of an IT waste epidemic.

Given that companies will either store redundant PCs and hardware or sell them to employees or second-hand PC markets, most old computers end up in people's sheds, garages or other storage locations, according to Will Le Messurier, managing director of MRI, one of Australia's few IT-focused recycling companies.

Le Messurier and others, like Eedra Zey, founder of Earth Vision, an independent environmental consultancy, warn that Australia faces a massive task ahead to prevent hazardous materials contained in computer hardware entering landfill and subsequently seeping into waterways.

The average CRT monitor contains around two kilograms of lead, not to mention mercury, cadmium and some very serious flame-retardant chemicals mixed into the plastics.

"The perception is that it's a clean industry, but in reality it's not," said Zey.

Zey spent over five years as the environmental manager at Digital Equipment Corp and later at Compaq. The company, along with the likes of IBM and Hewlett-Packard, is taking a leading role in what is known as product stewardship, the environmental management of end-of-life products.

However, environmentalists state that around 50 per cent of the PCs that enter the Australian market are white-box or clone PCs, often manufactured overseas by companies not willing to take responsibility for the proper disposal of used products.

Recent research by analyst Meta Group states that it can cost organisations up to 5 per cent of the initial purchase price to adequately dispose of IT assets. It's a cost not factored into many purchasing decisions. The call has now gone out to seek government support to ensure that major manufacturers are not disadvantaged by absorbing the cost of the proper disposal of old hardware.

"It is the industry's responsibility but it needs the government's support," said Zey.

Last Wednesday, the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) held a meeting with manufacturers, recycling companies, government representatives, charities and environmentalists to seek expressions of interest for a voluntary take-back program. The program is expected to trial from May to November and will target consumers and small offices, urging them to return obsolete hardware to specified locations.

The findings are expected to be used to lobby the government to provide a nationwide framework, possibly backed up by legislation, to ensure manufacturers and distributors take responsibility for the disposal of their products.

"The industry is keen to take a lead but there has to be the threat of legislation to get everyone on board," said Le Messurier.

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