Earth connection

No-one would deny that computer and other electronic equipment is now an essential part of any dental practice. Even the smallest use a wide range of electronic or electrical equipment, from dental apparatus in the consulting rooms to PCs in the reception area.

Yet despite this reliance, and the investment in buying the equipment and keeping it secure, until now most practices will not have been too bothered about how it was disposed of at the end of its useful life. In many cases it has been more a question of ‘Will it fit in my bin?’ or ‘Is there a man with a van who can take it away for us?’ rather than considering the environmental, financial and social repercussions of failing to dispose of the equipment properly and destroying the (usually confidential) data held on it.

Well those days are gone. The EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive becomes UK law in the next year and that, with other legislation already in place, means dental care professionals must start giving proper attention to disposing of their IT and other electronic equipment or risk prosecution. Any practice planning to upgrade or buy new IT equipment will need to give as much attention to disposing of their old equipment as to buying new items.

There is also the issue of complying with data protection laws governing stored confidential patient information. Some thought may already have been given to the ‘safe’ disposal of PC hard drives and the destruction of the data they hold, but practices must not overlook other redundant equipment that also act as data storage devices – think of mobile phones with contacts and a calendar, PDAs or even iPods.

While the WEEE Directive puts the responsibility on manufacturers to cover the cost of disposing of electrical and electronic goods, until 2008 that responsibility will rest with dental practices. They will therefore need to ensure they have made an allocation in their equipment budget for this to be carried out.

The Directive does not oblige producers – or even WEEE-compliant recyclers – to ensure data on discarded IT equipment, including hard drives, has been securely disposed of. In many cases it can still be recovered even after it has been dismantled, which presents a risk of personnel and other data being published or accessible. So even after 2008, attention will still need to be given to its secure disposal.

The Directive sits alongside existing legislation such as the Hazardous Waste Act and a ‘Duty of Care’ under the Environment Act 1990, which already make businesses responsible for disposing of electrical and electronic equipment.

Under the Hazardous Waste Regulations 2005, many products become hazardous beyond certain concentration levels. For example, disposing of more than 200kg of CRT displays – about 15 monitors with 17-inch screens – constitutes a notifiable risk that imposes all manner of new obligations on a business user.

Under existing Environment Agency regulations, any premises with such quantities of equipment must register themselves as a producer of hazardous waste and must use an organisation that has the relevant waste carrier licences to have the equipment removed.

Finally here, the Environmental Protection (Duty of Care) Regulations 1990 mean that a business has a duty to ensure that any waste it produces is handled safely and in accordance with the law.

This means dental practitioners are responsible for ensuring the safe and proper disposal or recovery of any waste they produce, even after they have passed it on to another party such as a waste contractor, scrap metal merchant, recycler, local council or skip hire company. The Duty of Care has no time limit and extends until the waste has either been finally and properly disposed of or fully recovered.

Without the luxury of a dedicated IT department, many practices will choose to employ a WEEE disposal company directly or through their outsourced IT support firm. Clearly it is crucial to pick a professional and trustworthy company since the environmental legislation – particularly the Duty of Care – means the practice will be held responsible for its waste disposal company’s actions.

But identifying the right type of company and checking its credentials is not as easy as it might seem, since there is currently no standard industry accreditation. Even so, there are some basic benchmarks that can be used to establish whether a company is credible and reputable.

Standards and licences – ISO is an important accreditation here as it shows a company’s commitment to certain standards and audited asset management systems. ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 are the ones to look out for. Waste disposal companies should also have the appropriate Environment Agency licences, which can be checked on the EA’s website. There will be exceptions but if in doubt, contact the EA.

Insurance – Does the company have professional indemnity insurance and at what level? This is vital if it is carrying out IT disposal or refurbishment, or on equipment that may hold data, as it would protect the organisation, as the data originator, if someone did prosecute.

Reporting – Any organisation should expect to receive a full report that gives details of the disposal of its equipment in the correct manner. If it’s a piece of IT equipment then the report should also confirm that the data has been erased and specify what has happened to the equipment. If it has been discarded, the report should provide proof that its recycling targets under the Directive have been met, or if refurbished, it should detail who it has gone to. If there are still any doubts, ask the company to provide information about its reporting process and perhaps even ask to check references from its clients.

While environmental legislation seems like just another piece of red tape for dental care professionals to contend with, at its heart is the principle of ‘waste avoidance’ and to reduce the amount of waste electrical and electronic equipment in untreated landfill. So disposing of your waste equipment in a compliant way really can have an impact on our local and global environment – and it’s good for your data protection obligations as well.

David Sutcliffe is a WEEE-compliant consultant at end-of-life IT asset management company CKS Group. For more details go to www.cksgroup.co.uk or email him at dsutcliffe@cksgroup.co.uk

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