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3/7/2003
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Business Case: Informed Discussion Will Drive Solutions

Let's not pollute the solution to concerns about our environment.

Lately, I find myself watching less network news and reading fewer daily newspapers. The reason is that the quality of the offerings has deteriorated. It used to be that we had facts reported. Now we get either an uncritical recitation of charges made against someone or a watered-down explanation of how we should interpret the events of the day. It's almost funny to watch a broadcast, say, of a presidential speech and then have the talking heads spend approximately the same amount of time telling us the meaning of what we just heard. They must consider us to be fairly dumb not to be able to understand it the first time around.

These thoughts crossed my mind when I saw an Associated Press item on InformationWeek.com entitled "Activists Say U.S. Computer Makers Pollute Environment, Harm Workers." Naturally, with that headline I thought I'd be reading about the specifics behind these serious allegations. No such luck. Instead, I was treated to unsupported statements about how U.S. tech companies lag foreign rivals in reducing hazardous materials and how at least one company founder and his wife "ignore the health and environmental impacts of E-waste on children and adults." Even the highest-ranked environmentally friendly American firm in the study "disappointed" and another U.S. giant was mocked for using inmate labor to recycle computers.

Environmental safety is far too important a subject to reduce to flaming headlines and unsubstantiated rhetoric. Reporting that doesn't go further than that is either irresponsible or lazy, you take your choice.

The gadgets that we love -- computers, cars, microwaves, and anything that needs batteries -- add to pollution. It's a vital issue to decide what to do with the waste and who's responsible for the solution. Resolution is relatively easy when recycling is profitable, such as is the case with reusable cameras and printer cartridges, but it's not so simple when the net result means someone has to foot the bill. What's a manufacturer's accountability? How about the consumer's? Should the government mandate the answer, and if so, should the funds come from the pocket of the manufacturer, the seller, the buyer, or the taxpayer?

When I read that a group is complaining about prison labor recycling outdated computers, I wonder whether the issue is environmental safeguards for the incarcerated or the use of low-cost manpower that replaces local jobs. I remember Tom Ridge, when he was governor of Pennsylvania, telling me and the other members of his IT Advisory Board that he welcomed the use of prisoners in a similar endeavor because it was a way to provide training that could help them establish a better life on the outside.

Let's have a thoughtful, informed discussion about how to solve the environmental problems caused by our technology -- what to do with old circuit boards, cathode-ray tube monitors, and the like. The answers won't be easy. For example, the flame-retardant coatings on circuit boards may possibly have long-term negative health effects, but fires caused by overheating can be even more dangerous in the short term. Let's not pollute the solution to our environmental issues by paying too much heed to press releases masquerading as news reports.

Robert M. Rubin is CEO of Valley Management Consultants, a firm specializing in E-business and IT strategy, organizational design, and evaluation. Prior to joining VMC, he was senior VP and CIO for Elf Atochem North America. He can be reached at vmc@comcast.net.

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