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What is Being Done

Governments worldwide are in the process of drafting and enacting legislation to reduce the amount of e-waste. The European Union passed a pair of bills in 2002 to help with the problem of European e-waste. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and the Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directives charge manufacturers of electronic equipment with the task of helping users recycle these products and reducing the amount of hazardous materials such as lead and mercury contained within them.

The US Congress is also considering House Resolution 425—also known as the National Computer Recycling Actto implement infrastructure and policy changes to help with the recycling of old computers. And state-specific bills are making an appearance in the US every day. But as is ever the case with governmental happenings, these changes will take time to have an effect.

In the meantime, companies like Dell and HP are taking steps to curb e-waste with programs to help users recycle their old computer hardware. But while they may be one of the biggest and most visible producers, e-waste does not stop with computers. In this age of information, a single disconnected computer is worth nothing. An oft-overlooked aspect of e-waste is the very tubes that make the Internet work: networking products. Routers, switches, hubs, cables, and more are thrown away every day.

While HP and Dell both offer e-waste takeback programs (Dell even offers a snazzy Flash overview of their asset recovery services here), only HP's recycling program accepts networking products. The first piece of network equipment costs $30 before shipping, with each additional piece costing $26. The program can be found here and is available worldwide, though as of this writing does not cover countries in Africa or Latin America. While HP is to be applauded for accepting more than computers, the costs of its program are out of line with the <$100 cost of most consumer networking gear.

Networking companies themselves have also taken notice of this problem, particularly in places that force them to do so by law such as the E.U., and have begun to take action. Netgear, D-Link, and Linksys all comply with the European WEEE and RoHS Directives. Some have even gone a step further to introduce power-saving features into their devices to lessen the amount of energy e-waste.

D-Link has started re-engineering their products to reduce power consumption through measures such as automatically powering down fans and hard drives in NAS devices during periods of inactivity. Additionally, given that many North American custom computer builders add Netgear products to their machines - which are in turn exported to Europe - Netgear has opted to go one step further and make all of their products worldwide RoHS and WEEE compliant.

However, the common thread in the recycling and hazardous materials actions of networking companies is compliance. Their efforts are all well and good in Europe and other countries, where directives like WEEE and RoHS place requirements on manufacturers that must be met in order for their products to be sold.

But networking companies do not seem to be as gung-ho about environmental efforts in the United States. Netgear and D-Link are the only companies to have applied RoHS guidelines to products sold outside of the European Union. And recycling efforts undertaken by networking companies are almost unheard of outside of those run by third-parties.

The exception to the lack of recycling efforts comes with Cisco's takeback and recycle program. The parent company of Linksys, Cisco allows individuals or companies in the US, EU, and South Africa to repackage any Cisco-branded hardware and have it picked up at Cisco's expense. This program is part of Cisco's larger Surplus Product Utilization and Reclamation (SPUR) program. SPUR brings together several different waste management programs to help reduce the amount of total waste from Cisco products that finds its way into landfills every year. More information on these efforts can be found on Cisco's SPUR website.

So while it could be worse—some electronics companies actively oppose producer responsibility in the US while supporting it in Europe (where they are bound to do so by law)—the situation could be much better. Add to that the grinding gears of the legislative process and frustration doubles. But it doesn't have to. Here are a few steps to help you rethink, reduce, reuse, and recycle that pile of e-waste today, and beat both business and government to the punch.

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