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Data centers deal with e-waste

As the data center boom continues, managers must figure out a way to get rid of obsolete IT equipment, e-waste. European Union directives are forcing manufacturers to take more responsibility for the production and disposal of these items, but the U.S. data centers must organize the disposal themselves.

As the interval for hardware turnover quickens, data center managers must find a way to dump leftover electronic waste or e-waste, and many are turning to third-party waste management firms to do the dirty work for them.

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The issue of e-waste has grown as the amount of hardware being thrown away has skyrocketed: The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than four million tons of e-waste hit landfills each year. There is also the problem of e-waste's sometimes-toxic ingredients.

If it's not disposed of properly, it could cause harm to the environment and people. Some states have varied regulations regarding the disposal and reuse of e-waste, and Congress is starting to wake up to the problem, but oversight in the U.S is still weak compared to Europe, where continent-wide regulations have passed regarding the manufacture and disposal of e-waste.

Data centers, meanwhile, are stuck with the question: What should they do with used servers and other electronic equipment if they want to get rid of it?

Many are hiring outside contractors to take it off their hands. The contractors usually charge by the pound or per piece of equipment and sometimes give money back to the company if they're able to resell it. Companies say that dealing with one e-waste management firm can be easier than going to multiple vendors and decoding multiple take-back or recycling programs.

Pat Morgan said that Columbus, Ohio-based Liebert Corp., where he is the IT manager, started a program years ago and has dealt with two companies that handle its e-waste. He said that one, RetroBox, specializes more in the data cleansing and inspection of used equipment, which jt'll then sell to its own employees or put on the open market. The other company, which Morgan said handles more of Liebert's e-waste, is Chasm Industries.

Both are local companies, or have local branches. Morgan said it's easier to hire those companies than handle all the regulations, certifications and logistics that go with recycling, reselling or dumping the materials themselves. He also opts to avoid each individual product manufacturer and go straight to a company that can do all of that for him.

"Because we have somewhat of a mix of products, we've never really explored services through the vendors," he said.

Jaime Man, IT director of Health Care Excel in Indianapolis, agreed, saying he uses a local company, Recall. Man said Health Care Excel examines each piece of hardware it's ready to ditch to see if it can be reused in the data center. As a result, most of the equipment it dumps to Recall doesn't have resell value.

"Most of the stuff we get rid of is pretty much end-of-life anyway," he said. "It's usually equipment that's been retired for one reason or another, that we can't donate."

Chip Slack is CEO of Intechra, an e-waste management firm that merged with RetroBox in November. He said Intechra provides an audit trail for companies to track each individual piece of equipment. It has a management information system that tracks every piece of equipment that comes into the shop and what happens to it and provides that documentation back to companies like Liebert.

All the major vendors have programs designed to take back equipment from users, but they're different and can be difficult to find. contacted four major vendors -- IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), Dell Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc. -- to talk about e-waste. The responses were less than forthcoming. IBM wouldn't comment for legal reasons. HP didn't respond to multiple emails.

A Dell spokesman, David Frink, talked mostly about the consumer recycling program, which has recently been made free. But on the corporate side, Frink mentioned the asset recovery service that Dell provides for data centers and wouldn't speculate on whether its take-back program for companies would eventually become free.

Sun was the most forthcoming, providing email responses that detailed the company's Eco-Responsibility Initiative. It provided a quote from David Douglas, Sun's vice president of eco-responsibility.

"While we are meeting the requirements of each regulation as it is enacted, we are in support of efforts to harmonize regulations across legislative boundaries," part of the Douglas quote went. "We believe that such coordination or top-down legislation can meet the same environmental goals but at a lower cost to manufacturers and their customers."

Manufacturers have come under scrutiny overseas, where the European Union has passed two directives overseeing the production and disposal of electronic equipment.

The Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive says that the responsibility for e-waste rests on the manufacturer. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (ROHS), which took effect July 1, restricts the use of six hazardous materials, such as lead and mercury, in the manufacture of electronic equipment.

That has forced manufacturers to build more environmentally friendly products, which has carried over to the U.S. It doesn't make sense for a vendor to build an environmentally sound line of equipment in Europe and an entirely different, environmentally ignorant line of equipment in the U.S., where oversight is lax.

Vendor Web sites list all the environmentally friendly aspects of their products, including the absence of WEEE-prohibited materials and how it makes the systems more modular to encourage reuse. For example, IBM's xSeries 240 machine has snap-on and snap-off connectors, accessible joints and fasteners, and common screw heads. All are meant to make the box easy to take apart so companies can strip out old components and replace them with new ones.

Environmental groups and some U.S. Congressmen feel there should be a federal law on e-waste, but whether it could happen and how soon is a matter of bureaucracy.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., helped form an E-Waste Working Group last year and has introduced a bill, HR425, which would attach a fee to the cost of electronic equipment and use the money to promote the proper disposal and recycling of e-waste. The bill has been sitting in a House subcommittee since February of 2005.

Thompson also helped draft a resolution last fall supporting the formation of a program to reuse, recycle and dispose properly of electronic equipment used by the legislative branch. The e-waste group is meeting again in September to see what else could be done.

"I think government is going to have to play an umpire role in this and sort it out," he said. "But I think every person in this country has some responsibility in this."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer

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