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July 10, 2003

Pitt details the correct way to dispose of outdated computers

You just took delivery on a faster, more powerful computer. Now the question is: What do you do with your old, outdated model?

You might be tempted, but throwing it in the trash is a no-no.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently classified electronics waste as “universal waste”; as such, it is prohibited from landfills, according to Jay Frerotte, director of Pitt’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S).

Typical computer set-ups contain several pounds of lead and small quantities of mercury. In addition, nickel cadmium batteries, common in laptops, are the largest source of the environmental toxin cadmium in municipal waste, Frerotte says.

To ensure EPA-compliance in recycling computers, Pitt has contracted with Reclamere, a Tyrone, Pa.-based company that specializes in electronics recycling. Pitt also has started a campaign to make sure all data are erased before recycling, he says.

Each department is responsible for ensuring that all data are erased before any computers leave the department. Then, the department should contact Surplus Property, which will pick up obsolete or broken equipment. Pick-ups can be requested by phone at 412/244-7071 or on-line at:

“Surplus Property makes some initial decisions on the usability of the equipment,” Frerotte says. The first option is to resell equipment to the campus community. Other computers are given to charitable organizations. The rest go to Reclamere.

Reclamere pays Pitt for a small number of designated computer components; for example, a monitor of a certain size where the company knows there is a re-sale market, Frerotte says.

“Some pieces they’ll take without charge, and the remainder we pay them by the pound for them to pick up and dispose of. But the key thing is that they have agreed to document where the EPA-regulated materials wind up,” he says.

Since last November, Reclamere has shipped more than 20,000 pounds of Pitt’s electronic equipment to be recycled. “The firm removes the lead and mercury, which can be sold to other vendors,” Frerotte says. The cadmium batteries typically are rechargeable so they also can be re-used elsewhere.

It was Reclamere that pointed out the need for data-erasing procedures.

“Reclamere detected one or two instances on computer units they were planning to re-sell where there were data left,” Frerotte says. “Not that it was confidential data, but it got us thinking about what type of information could wind up at this company, and ultimately in other hands.”

Easily retrievable personal information about the computer’s original user, data from the University’s payroll or student systems or patient information could remain on disk drives unless proper erasing procedures are used. Thus was born Pitt’s data-removal campaign.

Deleting files and/or reformatting a disk drive are not adequate measures to ensure full erasure of data, Frerotte cautions. To help departments to see that data are erased completely before a computer leaves the unit, Computing Services and Systems Development provides advice on the steps to take and issues special data-erasing software and utilities when needed.

(More detailed information on preparing a computer for recycling can be found at: or by contacting the Pitt Help Desk at 4-4357.)

“Departments should never throw any computers into the trash,” Frerotte says. “These computers do turn up from time to time in dumpsters or on loading docks, and we’ve met with Facilities Management supervisors about how to capture these and get them to Surplus Property.”

Pitt has developed two sets of guidelines to advise units on disposing computers, “Preparing a Computer for Recycling: Secure Data Removal,” and Surplus Equipment Recycling and Disposal (University procedure 10-06-04).

Questions on the recycling program should be directed to EH&S at 4-9505.

—Peter Hart

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