Examining Sustainability at Barnard

Laptop After Barnard

After the Macbooks have been in circulation for 4 years, there are a few options for what happens to them: reuse at BCIT, reuse by a faculty member, or recycle. BCIT may decide not to send an old computer to a recycling center right away. Instead, BCIT chooses to use some old computers that are still highly functional as test computers. Technicians wipe the hard drive and then test new technology and software that can then be distributed to computers currently in use by faculty. Finally, faculty members can also elect to keep their computers after the fourth year if they have department approval, but they lose access to Barnard’s software and BCIT’s technical support. Those who were assigned computers decide to keep the computers until the computers die, upon which they can choose to recycle them using state recycling programs or they can use the Apple Trade-In program themselves. 1 

If a faculty member elects for BCIT to recycle the computer, BCIT degausses the hard drives to erase its magnetic data and then sends the machine to Barnard’s facilities services. 2 Workers at Barnard Facilities Services then send the machine to an electronic recycling program,3 where workers take apart the laptop and remove dangerous substanceslike flame retardants, mercury, lead, and cadmium from cathode ray tubes and circuit boards. Next, workers remove rare earth metals and other valuables from parts such as the cables, circuit board, and motherboard. Finally, workers at the recycling program melt the metal down to be resold and reused to make new technology parts. 

Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell whether companies actually follow through with regulation recycling processes. The Basel Action Network, or BAN, investigates e-waste recyclers and has found that numerous US-based recycling companies send their e-waste overseas to countries in Africa and Southeast Asia in order to reduce the amount of money they spend on labor. While environmental activists have pushed for an international ban on “some of the world’s richest countries from sending their electronics to developing nations,” there remains almost a complete lack of regulation among wealthy countries.

Additionally, in recent years, numerous studies have been published about the negative consequences of electronic waste on public health, prompting investigations by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations. Workers at electronic recycling facilities are exposed to unsafe recycling techniques, including burning copper cables and "direct contact with harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), from inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as from accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food". Byproducts from e-waste have been shown to contaminate the environments surrounding waste sites, leading to high lead levels in children and high toxin levels in food. 6 

The United States in particular has policies in which nearly all e-waste can be legally shipped overseas, despite extensive research on the toxicity of electronic waste and the lasting environmental impacts of e-waste dumping. US consumers hoping to save the environment by recycling their e-waste inadvertently end up destroying the environments and lives of those in lower-income countries, as recycling companies seek to gain cheap labor and evade regulation. 
  1. “Apple Trade In.” Apple, www.apple.com/shop/trade-in.
  2. “Why Use a Degausser/Hard Drive Eraser and Other FAQs.” Data Security Inc. , datasecurityinc.com/security/degausser.html.
  3. “Electronic Waste Recycling.” Electronic Waste Recycling - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/65583.html.
  4. Colbert, Annie. “E-Waste Recycling Guide: How to Get Rid of Computer Parts, Old Phones.” Mashable, 26 Apr. 2018, mashable.com/2018/04/26/how-to-recycle-ewaste/.
  5. Cho, Renee. “What Can We Do About the Growing E-Waste Problem?” State of the Planet, Columbia University, 27 Aug. 2018, blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/08/27/growing-e-waste-problem/.
  6. Lecher, Colin. “American Trash.” The Verge, The Verge, 4 Dec. 2019, www.theverge.com/2019/12/4/20992240/e-waste-recycling-electronic-basel-convention-crime-total-reclaim-fraud.
  7. “Electronic Waste.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 3 Mar. 2020, www.who.int/ceh/risks/ewaste/en/.


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