June 2010

Telcos Prevent Landfills

Telcos Needn’t be Lords of the Landfill

By: Fraser Young, MF Communications

The USA tends to get a bashing as the world’s greatest polluter – from carbon emissions to exported waste. As e-waste has been highlighted by the UN as an escalating and dangerous problem American ICT businesses and users are classed among the worst offenders. But the USA should not shoulder the entire blame – it has actually led the way in refurbishing technical equipment and that keeps a significant amount out of landfill. Businesses on both sides of the Pond do to some extent have their head in the sand over green issues and could be doing much more to improve their environmental record.

The issue of e-waste has recently come to the fore with a report from the UN warning that the world could face mountains of electronic waste in the coming decade. In the USA it is estimated that 70 per cent of all heavy waste material in landfills comes from electronic waste and 3m tons are produced domestically every year. In all industrialized nations there is an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude, shipping e-waste abroad, usually to developing nations where it ends up in recycling plants but more often, on waste land.

This happens because businesses simply do not know what to do with surplus telecom equipment. Large corporates around the world rarely have strategy for what will happen to surplus telecom equipment once it becomes redundant. Some believe the OEMs will pay to take it back – but in reality this does not happen because it is not financially viable to the vendors. Some call the first firm they pick out in the telephone directory to take it away, without checking what they will do with it, to what standards they will refurbish, by what methods they will recycle, and importantly – where it will end up.

A large percentage of surplus telecom equipment collected in the United States for recycling is exported to areas such as China, India or Pakistan, where workers taking apart the old machines are handling toxic chemicals that can pose serious health problems. The afore mentioned UN report details dumpsites that are frequented by children who are subsequently exposed to extremely hazardous materials contained within telecom equipment. The report has led some developing nations to initiate bans on the import of all surplus telecom equipment – to the detriment of organizations in these countries that benefit from affordable, fully functional refurbished surplus telecom equipment. An understandable reaction though, given that surplus telecom equipment illegally destined for dumpsites gets labeled by unscrupulous firms as “second hand” to get it through border controls.

In recent weeks, containers have been returned to the US having been found to contain surplus telecom equipment destined for third world landfill rather than the useable second hand technology that was described on the labeling. Shockingly, the recycling company that had collected the surplus telecom equipment was using a waste broker listed as a registered e-waste exporter on an official web site of the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The official oversight body the Government Accountability Office slammed the EPA back in 2008 for doing far too little to control exports of electronic waste from the United States. While businesses clearly need to demonstrate more responsibility for their surplus telecom equipment, the US government is as guilty as any organization of sticking its head in the sand.

Businesses in Europe are no more responsible over e-waste than their American counterparts but the European Union has set global standards for government directing businesses on the issue. The legal framework for e-waste recycling remains strongest in Europe under the region’s stringent WEEE (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive. However, some big corporates and carriers in the UK are only slowly becoming aware that WEEE is an issue for them. The European Commission is currently revising the directive to ensure it is relevant and enforceable for each member state. Eventually companies will have no choice other than to dispose of their surplus telecom equipment responsibly; failure to comply will result in penalties including monetary fines.

Organizations in Europe have little excuse not to have a strategy for their surplus telecom equipment and a WEEE policy. In the US businesses face more obstacles to implementing responsible recycling programs, although these can of course be overcome. The lack of strong governmental guidance is one. Secondly, it is a logistical challenge for organizations to coordinate surplus telecom equipment recycling efforts due to the sheer size of the country and huge distances that exist between different sites of the same company and their nearest recycling plants. While small technology, such as mobile phones, can be posted for recycling, corporate telecom equipment is bulky and heavy: It is no mean feat to transport meters of cabling for example.

Globally now there is a vibrant trade in refurbished telecom equipment, which has been led by the USA. The quality of remanufacturing in the US is of the highest standard and as a refurbishing firm, we have based our business processes on what we have seen in the US. To a greater degree than their European counterparts, US refurbishing firms provide excellent service and quality. Having emulated US remanufacturers long before the UK had really cottoned on to the value and potential quality of surplus telecom equipment, MF Communications tests all new and remanufactured equipment and provides a warranty. Spare parts, telephones, PSU’s, cables, consoles and many other items are remanufactured to look like new and are supplied boxed, with new cords, remade plastic housing and literature packs.

Where US businesses stumble however is when it comes to European brands: As new, cutting edge systems and applications are pushed by manufacturers, businesses tend to migrate the entire organization on to a US brand, such as Avaya, which leads to a surplus of good quality, highly functional, but redundant European equipment. With the best intentions to pass this on to be refurbished and reused, organizations are finding a limited market for the likes of Siemens, Ericsson and Alcatel. Having been in business for ten years now, MF Communications has regular customers in over 80 countries which enables us to purchase used spare parts and achieve the right price for surplus telecom equipment which gives a far greater financial return than scrapping redundant PBX, switching and transmission equipment.

Taking responsibility for ensuring surplus telecom equipment does not end up in landfill can seem daunting but by investing a little time to research, the right partner can be found to relieve a business of this burden.

  • Firstly there is always a market for decent current equipment. A refurbishing firm that works across multiple countries has a better chance to compensate you for a European brand as it will find a home elsewhere for a system that may be unpopular in the USA.
  • Secondly, the de-installation process can be carried out with the least impact – both on the business and the environment. An environmentally mindful partner will remove surplus telecom equipment to the client’s requirements with minimal disturbance and plan the most fuel efficient routes and vehicles. Look for companies that have ISO14001.
  • Thirdly, the partner should operate a zero landfill policy, meaning that surplus telecom equipment that can be re-used is thoroughly serviced and remanufactured to the highest standards and issued with a warrantee. Every other component is recycled by the partner – not sent overseas – and absolutely nothing goes to landfill.

For many organizations the challenge of recycling telecoms systems seems too great to contend with and surplus telecom equipment frequently ends up in landfill. It is however possible to do the right thing AND realize some value from what is considered redundant technology.