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May 11, 2006

When Crappy Data Ruins Your Day

You would think that when the federal government – along with public advocates, watchdogs, even industry groups -- acknowledges the growing problem of getting rid of obsolete, toxic electronics, it would be easy to find a few studies that quantify the problem. Not so. After three days of scouring the Internet, calling experts, and chasing after the EPA for answers, the only report I and TNS editors could find is a 1999 study published by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit association of businesses, labor organizations, schools and public agencies, which contracted California-based Stanford Resources, Inc to do the research.

Everybody cites this NSC report (still available for $95 or a discounted rate of $45 if you’re a non-profit) – from the EPA to the GAO to the media to the leading non-profits trying to raise awareness about e-waste.

On its "E-Cyling" website, the EPA cites these findings:

The National Safety Council projects that nearly 250 million computers will become obsolete in the next five years and mobile phones will be discarded at a rate of 130 million per year by 2005.

In a 2005 report highlighting EPA failures in e-waste management, the GAO cites this:

The information we reviewed suggests strongly that the volume of used electronics is large and growing. For example, in a 1999 study, the National Safety Council forecast that almost 100 million computers and monitors (70 million of which would be computers) would become obsolete in 2003—a three-fold increase over the 33 million obsolete computers and monitors in 1997.

And a recent San Jose Mercury News article cites a non-profit that cites the number of cell phones predicted to be discarded in 2005 by the 1999 NSC report:

Only about 10 percent of all discarded computers are recycled in the United States, meaning millions of machines could be leaking harmful chemicals into groundwater, according to the Computer Takeback Campaign, a national group. Less than 2 percent of the 130 million cell phones discarded across the nation each year are being recycled, according to Washington, D.C.-based Earthworks.

These are three out of dozens of citations.

My calls to the NSC requesting a free copy of the 7-year-old report went unreturned.

Though these were the only national statistics available to characterize the growing problem of e-waste and though we originally included some of the data as what was being used by EPA, TNS editors Brian Dominick and Jessica Azulay raised important points about why we could not justify using these numbers. First, we were not able to review the entire report and its methodology; and second, these data and predictions were gathered more than six years ago and would not yield an accurate portrayal of the issue at hand.

This resolution did not come about immediately. In fact, the issue contributed to a 24-hour delay in publication and more headache-inducing research as I and my editors attempted to find more current studies and surveyed individual cities about their individual electronic waste statistics. But in the end, the extra time, effort, frustration and ultimate decision to abandon the dated NSC data, is an example of the rigorous TNS standards about what information we will relay to the readers in our coverage.


tnswoofer: When Crappy Data Ruins Your Day

I think you made a good call. Sympathy offered for your plight! There's a lot of mindless citation of unattributed, old or not very relevant data that gets into the media, and even more that gets spouted by cause groups of all stripes.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.