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A Practice Conundrum: E-waste Disposal

A Practice Conundrum: E-waste Disposal
Paul Popp
April 18, 2005

Computers and related information technologies (workstations, scanners, printers, docking stations, personal digital assistants, hand-held diagnostic and screening tools, cell phones, servers, etc.) are the heart and soul of day-to-day business operations. These tools are a necessity for effective and efficient performance within today's healthcare climate.

Critical practice elements such as; maintenance and utilization of patient databases, e-charts, electronic patient health information requirements (re: HIPAA), marketing and educational outreach, billing, coding and reimbursement, rehab management and practice management, scanning technology and more, have placed a premium on the maximal use of technology in every healthcare practice.

The adoption of faster, more powerful, more able equipment to contribute significantly to productivity, efficiency, profitability and return on investment (ROI) no longer begs the question of "Should I use the computer in my practice." Rather, the issue is "How to use it to my best advantage." To this end, many healthcare practices have upgraded their computers three, four or more times in recent years.

The value of information technology for the contemporary healthcare practice is, therefore, well recognized. What is not so obvious is the seldom considered companion issue to the use of modern technology: the safe and cost-effective disposal of obsolete or unused technology, which we refer to as "E-waste."

Rapid advances in computer technology has brought with it shorter useful equipment life for each successive generation of equipment. The useful life of a desktop computer purchased in 1997 was expected to be 6 to 7 years. By 2005, the average life span of a new desktop computer is expected to be 2 years (1).

Accelerating technological innovation and the associated decline in equipment useful life expectancy have produced an unintended consequence - an accumulation of obsolete, broken, and unused computers.

Is E-waste disposal a problem I need to be concerned with?

In a word....YES.

The problem of how to safely dispose of outdated, unwanted information technology is huge and growing larger each year. For example, studies estimate that between 250 and 700 million desktop and laptop computers in the U.S. will soon be obsolete (2). Computers and associated information technology is the fastest growing portion of the waste stream; growing almost 3 times faster than the overall municipal waste stream. Complicating matters is the fact that the improper disposal of this equipment presents an environmental problem of enormous proportions

Some experts have predicted that the disposal of E-waste will be the 21st century's most challenging toxic waste problem (3). This is largely due to PCBs, heavy metals (lead - 27% of the weight of a CRT, mercury, cadmium, etc.) and other poisonous substances (e.g., hexavalent chromium, brominated flame retardants, etc.) contained in most high technology electronic equipment.

Paul Popp

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