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.
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%).
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.
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.
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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