computer-recycleMaking informed choices

Overview

High-tech manufacturing produces millions of electronic products that provide the healthcare industry with greater efficiency, convenience and productivity. However computers and electronic products containing toxic materials pose a significant threat to public health and the environment when improperly disposed.

Hazardous components: Computers, televisions, lab analyzers, EKG monitors, and other types of biomedical electronic equipment may contain hazardous materials. Of particular concern are heavy metals such as lead (used in cathode ray tube [CRT] monitors and lead solder), mercury (used in the lights behind Liquid Crystal Displays [LCD]), and cadmium (used in batteries, resistors, CRTs, and plastic components), chlorinated plastics (PVC) used in cable wiring, brominated flame retardants (used in plastic computer housing and circuit boards).

Discarded computers and electronics are toxic hazardous waste. Studies suggest that as many as 100 million computers, monitors and televisions become obsolete in the U.S. each year. Discarded computers and other consumer electronics (so called e-waste) are the fastest growing portion of our waste stream — growing almost 3 times faster than our overall municipal waste stream.

Currently about 70 percent of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, in landfills come from electronic equipment discards. The health effects of lead are well known; just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a 20 acre lake, making the fish unfit to eat. The hazardous substances found in electronics have been linked to human health effects like cancer, birth defects, and hormone disruption.

Less than 10 percent of discarded computers and electronics are currently recycled, with the remainder stockpiled or disposed of in landfills, incinerators or exported to developing countries for disassembly.

Challenges for equipment disposal: The healthcare industry is responsible for the consumption and disposal of millions of electronic devices every year. The challenge for healthcare organizations is to dispose of outdated or used devices while staying conscious of the environmental and health threats posed by information technology waste. Increased use and short life spans have made discarded computers, healthcare electronic equipment, and other consumer electronics (so-called e-waste) the fastest growing portion of our waste stream.

Due to short life spans, discarded computers, healthcare electronic equipment, and other consumer electronics (so-called e-waste) make up the fastest growing portion of our waste stream – almost three times faster than our overall municipal waste.

Because of the potential for adverse impact on public health, health care organizations are recognizing their responsibility to address the issues of the general environmental impact of their computer and electronic waste.

Compliance with existing regulations: Consideration for a comprehensive end-of-life plan for electronic equipment should include: the reduction of risk liability; data security; cost control; efficiency; and the minimizing of health risks.

There are three important federal laws that must be followed by healthcare providers:

  • HIPAA– The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act requires confidentiality and security of health data. Healthcare providers should comply with the recent HIPAA legislation to ensure end-of-life data security for information stored on computers and other electronic equipment.
    See HIPAA’s official site or visit the HIPAA information database for details.
  • RCRA– The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act manages hazardous waste disposal, including computers and electronics. To comply with RCRA and avoid serious violation and fines, for example, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) or any other piece of electronic equipment that contain hazardous materials must be managed as hazardous waste and not end up in a landfill.
    Visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s site for specific details on RCRA’s requirements.
  • CERCLA– The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (better known as the Superfund law) states that the generator of a waste material containing hazardous substances is liable for proper disposal of that material throughout its life. This is true even if ownership of the material has changed hands. To comply with CERCLA organizations should be aware that by selling or giving old electronic equipment to another party, they can be held liable for the full cost of cleanup, plus penalties, if the other party disposes of it improperly.
    Visit the EPA’s overview for more information on CERCLA.

Solutions: Healthcare facilities can address the environmental impact of computers and electronics through environmentally conscious purchasing of equipment with fewer and/or less toxic components and with options for end-of-life handling.

In addition, plans can be made at the time of purchase for extending the life of equipment, including recycling/reuse, leasing, or purchasing products that incorporate recyclability and reusability into their design.

It is best to consider reusing, recycling and “take-back” options at the time of purchasing electronic equipment, so that end-of-life handling is anticipated in the original purchasing agreements.