New technology brings new functionality, new efficiencies, and new possibilities to our personal and professional lives—but it also brings new problems. One of those problems is electronic waste (i.e., e-waste), as well as determining best practices for e-waste disposal. From an environmental perspective, computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices contain toxins. Cathode ray tubes (think those huge CRT monitors that no one wants anymore) were manufactured using heavy metals, such as lead, barium, and cadmium. In addition, flame-retardant plastics—used in making electronics casings—can release damaging particles.
The end result is e-waste that piles up in landfills and clutters up our environment, and there’s more potential for toxins to seep into the ground and contaminate our water systems. But what can you do about it? Here, I’ll provide some best practices for e-waste disposal, so you can help provide a green and secure solution to the e-waste problem.
It Starts with Recycling
The first step is to consider recycling through donation or proper disposal. Electronics that can most easily be disposed of in this way include laptops, cell phones, hard drives, printers, scanners, computers, and monitors. For information about what and how to recycle, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s recycling website.
Host a recycling event. If you’re interested in jump-starting your recycling efforts, consider sponsoring a recycling event for your clients. You’ll need to partner with a vendor or organization to do the recycling (e.g., Earth911). Keep in mind that a typical full container of e-waste costs approximately $2,000 to recycle. That may seem expensive, but the goodwill that you (and your participants) get out of it could be of much more value.
- For one, you would be helping to reduce the amount of e-waste sitting in landfills, which is great for the environment.
- Second, you would be helping your clients clear out clutter they may be holding on to—showing that you are looking out for them by helping them efficiently and effectively get rid of their technological “trash.”
Focus on Security
Of course, it's good for the environment to have a recycling program for electronics, but what about e-waste disposal from a security standpoint?
As a financial professional, you’re legally obligated to ensure that sensitive or personally identifiable client information is protected. A good rule of thumb is that anything to be donated or recycled should never contain readable data.
One story from the Ledger illustrates this point and highlights what not to do when disposing of your old computers:
A Florida physician resigned his position after learning that a used computer he gave to a family he was acquainted with contained sensitive patient data. The doctor “had stored digital photos of his patients, along with such identifying information as their names, dates of birth, and social security or Medicare numbers.” One of the family members replaced the computer’s operating system, deleting the patient information, and the family members said the computer was used only “for their personal use and have said that neither they nor anyone else viewed any of the pictures or medical information.”
As you can see, even if the sensitive information inadvertently given away is not used for illegal purposes, the owner of the disposed equipment can still be held accountable for negligence. Here, the sensitive information was technically never accessed—and mostly deleted—but the physician did not properly safeguard it. As a result, he had to alert authorities and affected patients and take responsibility. A word to the wise: always err on the side of caution.
How Do You Remove Sensitive Data?
Before recycling or disposing of your old cell phone or computer, it is imperative to remove all data from the unit.
- For cell phones, delete all stored numbers and call history. Remove all e-mail, contacts, and any other personally identifiable information from the device. You should also remove the SIM card that may hold your personal data.
- For computers, hard drives, which could store years of e-mail, document, and image files, should be reformatted (i.e., erased) multiple times or destroyed. If you’re comfortable attempting this yourself, you’ll find that a useful and effective tool like CompuApps DriveEraser will do the trick.
If you’re not a tech guru, there’s no need to worry. A legitimate electronics recycling firm can take the entire burden off your plate. By “legitimate,” I mean a firm that properly and securely processes e-waste as opposed to collecting it and shipping it overseas where disposal and environmental laws are weak. You can find firms that offer secure and environmentally safe electronics recycling nationwide that guarantee the proper, environmentally friendly disposal of old electronics and sensitive information.
Helpful hint: Ask if a certificate of destruction can be provided. Legitimate firms typically offer these certificates, which can come in handy if legal questions come up with regard to the fraudulent use of sensitive information taken from a computer that has been thrown away.
The Donation Option
Another option for a piece of technology that no longer suits your needs is to donate. After all, an older computer may still be usable to a local nonprofit group or to a student, for example. But before you donate, here are a few questions to ask:
- Is it usable? If so, can the recipient use or refurbish it for use? If the equipment is too old or requires repairs, it may not be economical to fix it and, consequently, not a good candidate for donation.
- Does the computer have sensitive personal or business information on it that needs to be erased? If so, ensure that you remove the data yourself.
Many local organizations and businesses offer electronics donation programs. For more information about how to prepare a donation or to find a recycling/donation program in your area, visit the Electronic Donation and Recycling section of the EPA website.
Safeguard the Environment and Your Sensitive Information
There’s no doubt that electronics have become essential for maintaining our 21st-century quality of life and service. But, in turn, the downsides must be managed. When improperly disposed of, electronics can pose a hazard—especially if thrown away in bulk. As for security, ensuring the destruction of sensitive information before disposal is a must—the potential legal impact of neglecting this responsibility can be great.
By following a few of the best practices outlined here for e-waste disposal, you can ensure that our environment and your sensitive information are protected when, inevitably, that new, state-of-the-art computer you purchase replaces the old one.
What practice do you use when disposing of old electronics? Have you held a successful recycling event? Please share your thoughts with us below.