Shop Talk: School District of Philadelphia launches probe into its computer recycling program - Technical.ly Philly

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Jul. 8, 2009 8:30 am

Shop Talk: School District of Philadelphia launches probe into its computer recycling program

How at least one School District of Philadelphia computer monitor ended up in a massive e-waste landfill in Ghana remains unclear.

Refurbished computers in a technology recycling warehouse in Fairmount.

(Photo by Technically Philly)

How at least one School District of Philadelphia computer monitor ended up in a massive e-waste landfill in Ghana remains unclear.

But, after a PBS Frontline documentary camera spotted the hardware and Technically Philly made repeated followup inquiries, the district has announced it will launch an investigation, according to a written statement given by district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

“The School District of Philadelphia does not encourage or condone the illegal dumping of any school district property anywhere in the world,” read the statement, given first to Technically Philly. “As a result… [we are] currently investigating the source and disposal record of the equipment found in Ghana.”

The computer monitor, which had a district sticker on it, was just a brief moment in the explosive PBS Frontline report on e-waste that was released last month. Likewise, the monitor is just a small part of the hundreds of millions of tons of e-waste that flood the West African country and other developing nations each year.

When old technologies from Western nations, like the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom, are “recycled,” they are increasingly finding their way to places like the Ghanaian urban fringe of Agbogbloshie, which Frontline reports has become one of the world’s largest digital dumping grounds.

Watch the first half of the documentary below, where you’ll find the district computer in at roughly 3:40. Find the second portion here.

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SCHOOL DISTRICT POLICY

What hasn’t yet been made clear is how a Philadelphia school district computer made it there, and whether it’s an isolated piece or suggestive of the hundreds of pounds of old technologies that the district is forced to discard annually.

Since 2006, the district’s Educational Technology Office has maintained a “green” policy for the disposal of computers and technology equipment, the statement says.

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Schools and offices are asked to identify obsolete equipment, file asset removal paperwork and contact the district’s technology help desk. The help desk, in turn, contacts Clifton, N.J.-based computer recycling vendor Regentech, which is contracted to pick up the equipment — at no charge to the district. They then can refurbish, redistribute and resell any equipment as they see fit, as long as they meet U.S. Department of Environmental Protection standards, which the PBS documentary characterize as lax.

A Regentech spokesman did not return repeated calls for comment.

“This process has worked very well, and we are pleased with the performance of Regentech, Inc. Computer Recycling,” the district statement continued.

“There are alternatives to dumping old technology on the first person who will take it.”-Steven Feldman, Nonprofit Technology Resources

OTHERS AND THEIR SOLUTIONS

Like the district, most other large education institutions in the city do not ultimately handle the final destination of their recycled technologies.

“We rely on the third party vendors to do the responsible thing,” says Mark Aseltine, the executive director of the Technology Support Services at the University of Pennsylvania. “If we had any indication that they were not, we would stop using them right away.”

Penn offers tutorials on wiping memory clean and disposal options, but in the end, their junk gets carted away by an independent company, which is ultimately part of an industry that the PBS documentary suggests is “shadowy” and under legislated.

Yet, even those who are particularly active in the removal of unwanted technologies often use these outside contractors.

A program initiated at Temple University won the praise of a small feature in the June issue of University Business. The university has its own department to handle obsolete equipment, which is then stripped, updated, reused or otherwise redistributed. Putting some 1,800 old computers back into service is estimated to have saved the school nearly $1 million in the program’s six years of operation, but still models are eventually in need of recycling.

That’s the part of the tale that the PBS documentary suggests gets hairy, despite some federal intervention.

“There are alternatives to dumping old technology on the first person who will take it, and we are one of them,” says Steven Feldman the hardware manager of Fairmount-based Nonprofit Technology Resources, which boasts it is the largest computer refurbishment operation in Philadelphia.

Limiting the e-waste output can happen locally, too, Feldman says of NTR, which refurbishes and redistributes much of the hardware it receives at low or no cost to low-income Philadelphians. The school district has donated computers to NTR in the past, Feldman says.

While the nonprofit also uses an outside company to recycle some of the most outdated equipment it receives, Feldman says, “we remain vigilant, take tours of their facilities and methods.”

He declined to speculate on why the district would primarily use a vendor from outside the region for a no-cost solution. Regentech, like NTR and the third-party recycling companies used by Temple and Penn, is certified by the EPA.

The certification requires Regentech to maintain EPA disposal manifests for all equipment that is removed from the district. Those manifests were not yet obtained by Technically Philly, however, according to EPA documentation, Regentech (EPA ID # NJD 048351043, for those interested in further researc) has no significant violations alleged against them. They are also compliant with EPA inspection guidelines.

The details of the district’s announced investigation were not immediately available. Technically Philly will continue its coverage. As always, contact us with any insight or leads.

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Below watch a short report from Good magazine on e-waste

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[Full disclosure: The author of this story is a graduate of Temple University]

Every Wednesday, Shop Talk shows you what goes into a tech product, organization or business in the Philadelphia region. See others here.

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. In that capacity, he is a co-organizer of Philly Tech Week, Baltimore Innovation Week, Delaware Innovation Week and other events that bring smart people together. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here and curates a personal monthly newsletter of ideas and links here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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