Monday, December 27, 2010

What Happens to Electronic Waste?

From the NPR article:
"The dirty little secret is that when you take [your electronic waste] to recyclers, instead of throwing it in a trashcan, about 80 percent of that material, very quickly, finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan — where very dirty things happen to it," says Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, which works to keep toxic waste out of the environment. Puckett describes a trip he took, to Guyana, and another in China, in December 2001 as a "cyber-age nightmare."

Cutting to the chase, here's the thing, look for companies called "E-Stewards", who are committed to recycling your old electronics appropriately.

NPR article

I had no idea. Did you? I thought our wastes were dissembled here in the US. This almost says we should just throw away our electronic wastes in our own garbage bins. Then at least we are only poisoning ourselves and not yet again, putting our wastes onto those under privileged peoples around the world.

This garbage has shown signs of being from the US Schools, government agencies, but also from England and other first world countries. Jim Pickett said that he cornered one industry insider, Robert Fall, who has claimed that if pushed, they can start building computers without toxins, by 2015. They can remove substances like cadmium, beryllium, lead, etc.

To find a way around this now, go to EPEAT to find the least toxic computers available. Also, Greenpeace has a list of manufacturers and the Electronics Take Back Coalition. As for your no longer needed cellphones, GreenPhone

Let's also consider that if your wasted computer ends up in a dump in China, or Guyana, or elsewhere, Identity thieves can access your old data and rip you off. So when you dump your old electronics, erase your information. Even if its broken, sometimes, they can still access your info. When researchers tried to purchase old hard drives from these dumps, they were asked for $300 indicating that these scavengers know, they are selling data, not just hardware.

Here is another NPR article that can be helpful. Some recyclers do wipe your old hard drives, but really? I wouldn't depend on that:
How to erase old hard drives without a drill bit

Its good to note that Interpol in the European Union, the EPA in the US and others are now, finally, getting involved in these legal considerations and protection of citizens' data. Also, authorities in Hong Kong have also been helpful in these efforts, actually finding shipping containers (maybe 100 or so) with the wrong kinds of electronic waste cargo, and some are actually being sent back to the US.

For myself, I've built many computer systems for my family over the years. I've taught my children, how to build a system. But it never occurred to me to teach them about getting rid of systems. That is something I will rectify right away. What I do as far as my information, is I always strip out my hard drives. I have a box full of them from over the years. When I do get rid of them, I either take them apart and keep the disk containing the data, or I wipe it with a powerful magnet.

But much like the old security adage of "the only secure computer is one that is unplugged, turned off and locked away", the only safe hard drive is one that is in your control. Or, obviously, as that isn't realistic, the only safe hard drive is one that is reasonably devoid of your old data. There are government level data erasers that write over the data many times with zero bit data, basically random ones and zeros. I've also used this type of software. More recently, the past fifteen years or so, I've kept my disks in the possibility that one day I will be able to access the data on them as some I would like to reclaim and some would just be like an historical archeological dig. Just for fun, basically.

In the end, give more thought to how you eliminate old electronics from your life and do be aware of your old data being contained on your old hard drives, your old cell phones even and any device that has your information. You don't want to find out that you've just bought a car in Guyana, or purchased an airplane ticket to the US, from China.

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