Dec 31 2009

It's Not Easy Being Green

As federal agencies try to improve their technology waste practices, many find it's harder than it looks.

The Army's Fort Lewis is, quite literally, cleaning up its act.
Two years ago, the base in Washington state set the lofty goal of generating zero
net waste by 2025.

Fort Lewis is getting a big boost toward achieving that goal from the Federal
Electronics Challenge, a program that encourages—and helps—federal agencies to
manage technology in an environmentally responsible way. Since the late 1990s,
when studies found that cathode ray tubes (CRTs) leach lead at nearly four times
the regulatory limit, the issue of electronics waste management has moved into the
spotlight. Federal sites such as Fort Lewis are serving as examples for the rest of the
nation by reducing the amount of electronics waste, or e-waste, they produce.

"The recycling revolution caught a lot of
folks off guard," says Charles Johnson, the
electronic stewardship program manager
for the Office of the Federal Environmental
Executive (OFEE), which issued the
Federal Electronics Challenge.

"We have a fast-growing waste stream,
but it's only recently that a lot of folks have
come together to address this on a national

The Federal Electronics Challenge gives
agencies national recognition, information
and technical assistance to address e-waste
issues. In exchange, agencies agree to meet
certain levels of environmental standards—
bronze, silver or gold—in the procurement,
use and disposal of electronic devices.

John Howard, the federal environmental
executive, initiated a pilot of the challenge
in May 2003. The Department of Defense,
Environmental Protection Agency, U.S.
Postal Service, Department of Energy and
Department of the Interior signed on as
inaugural partners in this effort. The full
launch is slated for May 2004.

"It's basically an effort to get the federal
government to look at how we manage our
electronics from cradle to grave," Johnson

Addressing the problem of technology
waste isn't as simple as tossing PCs into a
recycling bin instead of a trash can. Few
recycling facilities dispose of electronics
properly. Some ship products to landfills in
countries whose environmental standards
are lax. However, if serial numbers are found
on equipment that's been disposed of
improperly, it can come back to haunt its
former owner.

Even donating discarded equipment
poses a challenge. Technology becomes
obsolete quickly but dropping PC prices
make it difficult to give older equipment

Security offers some harsh lessons. Some
agencies learned the hard way—after their
sensitive data was found by recipients of
donated or recycled computers—that it isn't
easy to scrub hard drives clean of data.

The cost of recycling equipment is also a
concern as it can add up quickly. Software to
delete all traces of data, employee time spent
cleaning hard drives, resources devoted to
developing environmentally sound disposal
policies, recycling fees and shipping costs can
run from $10 to $150 per machine.

Recycling Roadblocks

But organizations have little choice, as a few
states already ban CRTs from landfills.
Because many electronics are classified as
hazardous waste, their handling is governed
by general environmental regulations, such
as the Comprehensive Environmental
Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
(aka Superfund) and the Resource
Conservation and Recovery Act, both of
which dictate how to dispose of or recycle

A bill to create a computer recycling grant
and fee program and a national e-waste
infrastructure was introduced in the U.S.
House of Representatives, but it has been
stalled since March 2003 in an Energy and
Commerce Committee subcommittee.

In years past, it was large-scale, obvious
hazards—barrels of leaking crude oil and
burning rivers—that raised environmental
eyebrows. No one thought about problems
like computer monitors.

"It seems so innocuous," says Terry
Austin, sustainability coordinator at Fort
Lewis. "It's just this thing that sits on your
desk. How could it contain something that
you wouldn't want in your water?"

Lead, cadmium, barium and mercury are
only the most prominent items on a long list
of hazardous materials found in electronic
devices. When disposed of improperly, these
chemicals can seep into the water supply,
polluting drinking water, harming fish and
wildlife, and boosting rates of miscarriages,
birth defects and cancer clusters, according
to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

As technology refresh cycles advance,
the amount of equipment being
used and retired continues to
climb. According to David
Daoud, an analyst at IDC in
Framingham, Mass., 46 million
computers were sold in 2002.
The federal government buys
$38 billion worth of electronic
equipment and services each
year, according to the Office of
the Federal Environmental
Executive. Yet many studies
estimate that only 20 percent
of obsolete computers and
TVs are recycled. "I don't
think that all these millions of units that
we're talking about are being recycled,"
Daoud says.

Fort Lewis officials are evaluating more
environmentally friendly IT procurement
practices, such as buying instead of leasing
equipment and buying cleaner products,
including circuit boards with less lead and
flat-panel liquid crystal displays (LCD)
instead of CRTs. The base also plans to join
with other installations in leveraging their
buying power and to insist on vendor take-back programs and cleaner products, reports
Ken Smith, Fort Lewis Public Works chief of
environmental operations.

The National Park Service faces a quite
different challenge: It must find adequate
recycling facilities for parks in remote areas.

"This is a huge issue for the Park
Service," says Bretnie Grose, environmental
programs assistant for the service's Pacific
West Region. Park managers she speaks
with complain that they have closets full of
computer equipment, she says, and "they
just don't know what to do with it."

As a new participant in the Federal
Electronics Challenge, Grose gets one-on-one assistance with environmental waste,
property and purchasing issues. She's
learned how to locate recyclers and has a
checklist of questions for recyclers about
their disposal practices.

Park Culture Goes Green

Some cultural changes at the Park Service
are making its technology practices more
earth-friendly. Seattle and Oakland divisions
have started using notebooks as their sole
computers instead of desktops or some
combination of desktops and notebooks.

"The first step in recycling is to purchase
less," says Steve Butterworth, energy manager
for the Seattle region.

That's the attitude that everyone needs to
take, before it's too late, says Fort Lewis' Smith.

"If we keep ravaging Mother Earth," he warns,
"eventually there will be nothing left."


Scores of computers, monitors, printers and fax
machines pass through the personal property unit of
the General Services Administration (GSA) each month.

To dispose of such huge volumes of equipment,
GSA turns to vendors such as Fort Lee, N.J.-based
AnythingIT, which offers technology take-back
services for government. Agencies can't accept
rebates, but they can trade in old equipment and get
the value credited to their accounts for future purchases.

"Agencies have to fight for every dollar of their IT
budget," says AnythingIT President David Bernstein.

"This is newfound money for a lot of them."

AnythingIT will arrange to have hard drives cleaned
using a Department of Defense-approved forensic
application, which overwrites data on the hard drive a
minimum of three times to ensure that it can't be
retrieved, Bernstein says.

"We live in a different world today," he says.
"September 11 was a wake-up call. Now data
security and liability protection are paramount."

AnythingIT also arranges to have equipment
packed, shipped and inventoried in compliance with
standards set by GSA and the Office of Management
and Budget. The company records serial numbers,
model numbers and asset-tag information, providing
an audit trail that agencies can track via a password-protected Web site.

If agencies prefer, AnythingIT will help them donate
equipment to a nonprofit agency or return it to a
leasing company to avoid fees.

Electronics waste is a big issue for GSA. In October,
it issued a bulletin alerting federal employees to the
problem, according to Robert Holcombe, GSA director
of personal property. "My gut tells me that many
people who actually make the decisions don't know
about … the heavy metal problem," he says.

"Hopefully, this information will get into the hands of
the people on a loading dock before they throw
[equipment] away."


• Reuse equipment or parts from other offices or agencies

• Select vendors that offer recycling programs

• Require recycling facilities to document that equipment is
disposed of according to strict environmental standards

• Buy earth-friendly products, such as LCD monitors and
multifunction machines.