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Posted May 3rd, 2011

UNICOR’s Irresponsible Computer Recycling

“Responsible business practices” is a phrase that has gotten its fair amount of exposure as of late. Organizations and corporations who seem to have “gotten it right” throughout their decades of service have been closing their doors left and right due to questionable circumstances. Although there may not seem to be, there is one common denominator that contributed to the downfall of these captains of industry—a lack of transparency.

Transparency is a term one cannot escape in the electronics recycling industry. It’s a core building block for any who wish to enter this globally conscious world. Yet, much like those others who have found themselves in the headlines, there are those within the realm of computer/electronics processing who claim transparency, but actually approach their business with a little more… ambiguity.

In a recent article from “The News Herald” (Panama City, FL), practices of this questionable nature were spotlighted. According to the August 8, 2009 write up, Federal Prison Industries, trade named UNICOR, has been named in a federal lawsuit regarding their computer and electronic recycling program at The Federal Correctional Institute in Marianna, Florida. Specifically, the suit alleges that the computer recycling program initiated by UNICOR within this facility is hazardous to the health of both the workers processing the electronics, as well as those in direct contact with these individuals.

UNICOR is a government-owned, for-profit company that was created by executive order in 1934 to enlist prison labor for the production of a variety of goods and services. The outfit’s program at Marianna uses inmate labor to break down and retrieve salvageable computer parts from units given up for recycling. Though UNICOR claims to process electronics to “save precious landfill space, energy and resources,” the program’s existence calls into question a couple of key security factors.

Factor one is the soundness of the program’s actual recycling process. The lawsuit noted in “The News Herald” piece is seeking information specific to the impact of the electronics recycling operation at Marianna. When not processed correctly, computers and electronic devices can release toxic dust filled with dangerous substances like lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic. Cited in the article was a recent report issued by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a California-based research organization that studies environmental impacts of the technology industry. The Coalition’s audit found that UNICOR facilities repeatedly failed to provide proper recycling procedures (i.e. ventilation, tools and adequate protective gear).

Another UNICOR computer recycling operation in eastern Ohio closed down after a similar report was submitted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to the Office of the Inspector General declaring that the staff and inmates had “no protection against exposure to high levels of lead and cadmium.” In essence, by not providing the necessary individual safeguards and operation-wide systems that fully protect the persons and places involved in processing computers and electronics, a recycling program has the potential to do as much harm as an unprocessed device simply left in a landfill.

The second security factor involves the integrity of the data housed on computers designated for recycling. Though no information breaches have been attributed to the UNICOR electronics recycling programs, the fact that convicted criminals are daily handling potentially sensitive information does leave room for risk. At the very least, it should give organizations seeking to recycle their electronics or computers cause to pause when considering the services offered by processors such as UNICOR.

In a time when America’s unemployment rate is at 9.4 percent and the heads of state are cleaning up the mess of other businesses who exhibited muddy ethics, of all industries, the vision of an electronics recycler should be unyielding in its transparency. It seems on this point, some just aren’t that clear.

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