News Analysis

IT managers fail to quiz toxic IT criminals

Rebecca Thomson

IT managers are failing to properly question sham technology recycling firms. As a result, much of their old IT is being dumped in developing countries.

Thousands of crates of toxic IT waste are finding their way to India, China and Africa from the UK every year. But experts say IT staff can help stop the traffic by asking simple questions.

"We are finding people saying they have a contract with a refurbishment firm, and this firm has promised it is going to do all sorts of good things," said Adrian Harding, policy advisor at the Environment Agency. "But they never check it. The problem is people are taking things on trust - you would not do that when you are buying the equipment. We want people to take as much interest in their end of life equipment as they do on the procurement side."

Harding stressed that the disposal process can be easy if IT departments ask the right questions - a first step is to check the Environment Agency's website to see whether the disposal firm is registered.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive was introduced to reduce the amount of IT waste being sent to landfill. But Tony Roberts, CEO and founder of re-use charity Computer Aid International, said the biggest winners have been the e-waste criminals.

"The directive has had the positive effect of increasing awareness around IT environmental issues," he said. "But the most significant growth area has actually been the sham re-use companies. The equipment which we hoped would be diverted for re-use has largely been diverted for commercial resale - both by legitimate organisations, but also by the cowboys who pack it into trucks and send it to Africa and India."

He said thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of containers of e-waste leaves Britain illegally each year, and he wants the Environment Agency to been given more resources to tackle the problem.

The Environment Agency said it is working on eight large cases at the moment and is hoping prosecutions will act as a deterrent to organised criminals involved in the practice.

But Craig Anderson, development manager at refurbishment company the Furniture Re-use Network, said the solution lies in educating big corporations and public organisations to properly audit the recycling or refurbishment process.

"We need to make them aware of the consequences of sending the equipment to the wrong place. And we need to show how easy it is to get it right."

Harding said, "Business customers need to be far more questioning, far more suspicious and far more demanding of their refurbishment and recycling firms."

Things to ask your disposal supplier for:

  • A certificate of data destruction
  • Evidence the firm is registered with the Environment Agency - this can be done on its website
  • Make it part of the contract that you receive documentary evidence of where the waste was sent to - what happened to it, which parts were reused, and which were recycled.
  • Check the organisation holds the correct permits to carry, trade and store waste. This can be done on the Environment Agency website.

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