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By Roman Kepczyk, CPA.CITP, CGMA, PAFM on June 22, 2022 minute read

eWaste and your firm

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There is a growing amount of “buzz” in firms around environmental, social and governance initiatives commonly denoted as ESG. Most of the ESG discussion in firms today is focused on potential service and reporting opportunities, which to many smaller firms seems a long way off. However, the reality is that environmental issues impact everyone, and taking steps to preserve the environment benefits not just future generations, but business as well.

Developing a comprehensive ESG service offering or program within an accounting firm would definitely be a significant undertaking, but firms can garner ESG awareness and begin directly addressing the issue by simply minimizing the impact of their own electronic waste on the environment. Taking such action has the potential to not only promote the firm as a socially conscious community leader but also to attract environmentally conscious clients and employees. You can begin by ensuring that firm members understand the problems associated with electronic waste (eWaste) and providing resources and action steps to properly deal with its disposal.

Understanding the eWaste situation

The reality today is that consumers are purchasing even more electronic devices, often disposing of still-functioning equipment so they can be upgraded to the latest enhanced features. Many of these newer electronic devices have shorter useful lives than their predecessors and are being replaced on a faster schedule. Consequently, more eWaste is being created (e.g., smartphones purchased every two years).

According to a 2020 United Nations Global eWaste report, a record 53.6 million metric tons of eWaste was generated in 2019. This represented a 21% increase over the previous five years, and the report stated that the volume was expected to double again within 16 years. The report pointed out that only 17.4% of current eWaste was collected and recycled, leaving the vast majority to be improperly disposed of in landfills, dumped in the ocean, or worse, burned. These improper disposal methods had the impact of releasing toxic chemicals such as lead and mercury into the water supply, which eventually leaches into soil/farmland and into the food supply.

When it comes to eWaste, accounting firms aren’t unique and utilize significant amounts of technology that will eventually need to be replaced. Think about the personal computers, servers, monitors, scanners, printers, tablets, phones, and other networking equipment that the firm replaced in the past few years, much of which is probably still stacked in a back room. Remote work has increased the technology footprint in most firms and, in many cases, the number of computers, displays, and peripheral devices being used doubled. The UN reported that such office/business equipment eWaste accounts for approximately 41% of eWaste (with large home appliances making up 31% and personal electronics accounting for the remaining 28%).

Recycled and toxic chemicals

While discarded electronic devices contain gold, copper, and rare earth elements that recyclers covet, they also contain toxic chemicals such as lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and beryllium that are extremely harmful to our environment and to humans. When discarded in landfills, these elements slowly give off gases and leach into the soil, polluting not only the local water supply but also permeating irrigated farmland. This impacts the food supply chain by finding its way into crops and livestock consumed by humans. Burning electronic waste, which is another common form of eWaste processing, is known to release chemicals that can cause severe illness, particularly the brominated fire retardants found in circuit boards that are proven to directly damage the human nervous system and liver.

What you can do

Firms can proactively choose to make more informed, sustainable choices that not only reduce eWaste but indirectly improve production capacity and reduce downtime. The following are seven considerations to help your firm reduce eWaste.

  • Educate your personnel: A good first step is to educate firm personnel on the impact of eWaste on their own community, including understanding local legal disposition requirements. More than half the states and the District of Columbia have specific laws against dumping electronic waste with the regular trash.
  • Purchase responsibly: A second step is to make informed buying decisions. Buying budget-priced equipment often means the technology may have older components or be less robust, which would have to be replaced more frequently, thus creating more eWaste. Mobile monitors are a good example where the budget brands cost less than half that of the industry standard but often break within the first year. Vendors such as Dell, Apple, and Verizon provide eWaste disposal and recycling options and sometimes provide buy-back options or credits towards the purchase of a new device.
  • Upgrade options: Before replacing equipment, firms should evaluate if the device can be upgraded with processors, RAM, or peripherals to continue being effective. This option is particularly effective for firms with all applications in the cloud, as the workstation’s requirements in this environment are less than if all work was processed locally.
  • Repair/repurpose: Before sending any outdated equipment to recycling/destruction, firms should consider if the device can be repurposed (without storage drives) and donated to charitable organizations or schools for those that can’t afford a computer. Removing and destroying any disk storage device (HD, SSD, flash drive) that has ever stored any client data is a critical step in this process as erased data can often be reconstituted by those with the proper recovery tools (which could expose the firm to liability).
  • Resell: Another possible but less utilized option is to resell equipment so its life is extended before becoming eWaste. Vendors such as SellYourTech.com, Decluttr.com, Gizmogo.com, and even Amazon Trade-In provide cash or credits for used equipment. But as mentioned above, it is critically important to ensure that no firm or client data resides on any of the associated storage media.
  • Recycle: Research reliable recycling companies that are R2 certified (Responsible Recycling Standard) in the disposal of computer equipment, including certifying the destruction of any storage drives. A quick search alluded to there being a significant percentage of recyclers that don’t properly dispose of the equipment that they have been charged with recycling. Many export this equipment overseas where there is no oversight on proper disposal or attempt to repair and resell the equipment (which could theoretically still contain firm data on it) instead of recycling the equipment. Industry organizations such as e-Stewards, Call2Recycle.org, and Earth911.com provide resources to identify credible local eWaste recyclers.
  • Coordinate: A final step in properly handling eWaste is to invite employees, family members, and clients to participate in the firm’s recycling efforts. Identifying public eWaste drop locations (i.e., Staples or Best Buy for certain electronics) and eDumpster “drop days” organized by local city or county governments can promote awareness of the issue and direct people to responsibly dispose of the eWaste they may have lying around their homes.

Conclusion

Today’s accounting firms rely on an ever-increasing amount of technology, which leads to the creation of an ever-increasing amount of electronic waste. Properly disposing of this waste is the responsibility of everyone. Making a conscientious effort to educate employees and having a program to deal with eWaste can help the environment and the firm’s stature in the community, their personnel, and potential clients and hires.

A version of this content originally appeared in the Thomson Reuters Accounting and Auditing Newsletter.

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