Thursday, November 13, 2008

"A Profitable Graveyard"

One of the things that I really don't like about working with electronic records is the speed with which hardware and storage media become obsolete. Even if we receive or convert records to some sort of non-proprietary file format (i.e., a format for which the source code is freely available, thus enabling third parties to create software that can create and save files in the format), we still have to ensure that the records are copied onto new storage media while hardware that can access older media is still operational. Even if data on older media is intact and uncorrupted, it will eventually become difficult or impossible to find hardware and software that can access it. (I know for a fact that 20 year-old open-reel data tapes can contain data that has survived quite well . . . and that getting one of the handful of firms that still has a functioning open-reel tape drive to retrieve the data and place it onto newer media is not cheap.)

However, my dislike of obsolescence isn't limited to the myriad preservation and financial problems that it poses. The ever-increasing stream of waste generated by our new digital age is also gives me pause: computers, monitors, cell phones, tapes and discs, and the like have short lifespans. They contain not only precious metals (silver, gold, platinum) but also toxic heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury) and a witches' brew of other chemicals (e.g., flame retardants). With disturbing frequency, this e-waste is sent to developing nations and disassembled by workers lacking sufficient training or safety gear. Lax environmental regulations all but guarantee the contamination of soil, groundwater, and air.

There are responsible e-waste processors out there, and an article in yesterday's New York Times profiles a firm that seems to be doing the right thing: e-Scrap Destruction of Islandia, N.Y. shreds incoming e-waste -- thus ensuring that data can't be recovered from hard drives, memory chips, etc. -- and sends it to a Canadian refinery that pulverizes it into its base components (e.g., silver, gold, copper) and sells the components to manufacturers that produce new products. e-Scrap Destruction promises that none of the e-waste it processes will end up in landfills, and periodically checks to ensure that all of the firms with which it does business adhere to a no-landfill policy. e-Scrap is earning a tidy profit serving as undertaker to the "digitally deceased," and it expects to add employees as the move to digital television takes effect next year.

I still have profound reservations about the digital era's propensity for generating e-detritus. However, I'm glad that there are responsible e-waste processors out there, and I hope that their numbers grow -- and soon.

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