Recycling IT assets is serious business

Getting rid of old tech equipment now takes as much forethought as purchasing it in the first place did

Information technology departments that practice asset management are learning to master the art of retiring hardware at the right time. But making the decision to retire IT gear is just the beginning; tech managers must then figure out what to do with the systems that are past their prime.

Gone are the days when IT managers brought used laptops home to their kids or companies sent trucks loaded with old monitors to the local recycling center (or, in even earlier days, to the dump).

[ Learn more about the ROI of green IT -- and discover the sustainability secrets of InfoWorld's 2010 Green 15 winners. | Keep up on green IT trends with InfoWorld's Sustainable IT blog. ]

Now, thanks to privacy laws, environmental regulations, software licensing rules and other factors, disposing of IT equipment properly requires companies to spend significant time and sometimes significant money.

Here's a look at everything you need to know about hardware disposal, 2010-style.

Review your corporate options

There are myriad ways to get rid of old hardware, but not all of them are equally viable in the eyes of corporate IT. For example, refurbishing PCs and laptops for internal reuse is one option, but few organizations do this themselves, IT experts say.

Buying brand-new systems doesn't cost very much these days, whereas refurbishing systems internally can be costly and time-consuming and may require a significant amount of expertise.

When it comes to larger items like data center equipment, some vendors now offer to haul away old systems to recycle or refurbish when a customer buys a new system (much like big-box retailers do with home appliances), but this practice isn't yet widespread.

Giving or selling old equipment to employees for personal use is another option, although IT professionals interviewed for this article say their companies don't do that, because of the cost and effort required to make old equipment truly usable.

That leaves recycling, donating and reselling (whole systems or parts, individually or in bulk) as the three most manageable hardware-retirement options for most companies.

Even after they've whittled down their disposal options, fewer companies than ever are going it alone.

While smaller companies with less hardware may be able to handle disposal tasks themselves, enterprises with tens or hundreds of thousands of PCs in locations across the globe are more likely to call in a third party to handle whatever option they choose.

"You need a partner in this, because it's getting harder and harder," says Michael Lechner, managing director of project services at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Tampa, Fla., who relies on multiple outsourcers to deal with the old equipment for PwC's 40,000 users around the globe.

Typically these outsourcers -- called "IT asset disposition" vendors (rather than disposal vendors) -- will repurpose or resell any components that are still viable. For the portions of, say, a PC that have no market value, the outsourcer will sell the steel to a custom house or a mill, which typically shreds it for reuse. Plastic is sold to processors that might turn it into pellets, and copper is sold to brass or copper mills, according Robert Houghton, president of Redemtech Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, outsourcer that provides asset management and life-cycle planning services.

In the end, virtually nothing is thrown away. "There may be a very small amount of material left over, which would be considered fluff -- maybe 1 percent to 2 percent of the weight [of the original asset] that has to be disposed of in hazardous waste landfill," says Houghton.

As the market becomes more crowded, some providers of disposition services have begun cutting corners, causing industry watchers to recommend that companies ask their outsourcers to prove they're disposing of assets in a legal and environmentally responsible manner.

Protect company data

Regardless of what a company plans to do with its old equipment and whether it contracts with a service provider, the first step on the road to disposal is to protect corporate information by removing all data from hard drives.

"From an information protection perspective, it's imperative that our assets are scrubbed, no matter what we're planning to do with them," says Sharon Dorsey, senior director of information resources at Marriott International's technology sourcing and life-cycle management group. There are plenty of off-the-shelf programs that will wipe hard drives, but Dorsey recommends using products that adhere to U.S. Department of Defense standards for data cleansing. "The minimum [number of wipes] for DOD standards is three, but seven is optimal," she says.

Even though data removal is part of the package offered by disposal service providers that Marriott contracts with around the world, Dorsey's team still wipes drives before they leave the company "as an extra step to limit risk," she says.

Protect the environment

IT employees at Marriott may take a first pass at wiping hard disks to protect company data, but when it comes to protecting the environment, the company completely entrusts to contractors the job of making sure the equipment is taken care of in an environmentally sensitive manner. In the U.S., Marriott uses Intechra Group.

"There's no way I want a Marriott asset disposed of inappropriately against local or state laws and regulations. There's environmental risk," Dorsey says. "A company like Marriott, with 3,400 locations in 68 countries, doesn't have the manpower to do this. Most of the [disposal] companies we deal with are large and have a presence not only in the U.S. but outside of it, too, and they stay current with the local regulations."

For smaller companies that operate only in the U.S., ensuring that assets are properly recycled is an easier process, because there are fewer conflicting regulations and there is less equipment to deal with. Still, it's essential to monitor the process, particularly for companies that have green reputations to maintain.

Companies that use outsourcers need to be sure that the service providers are recycling and disposing of components properly. According to the Basel Action Network, which focuses on issues of global e-waste, as much as 80 percent of electronics that are collected to be "recycled" actually end up on barges bound for countries like China, Vietnam, Nigeria, Ghana, and India. Typically, the e-waste sits in landfills, since many of those countries don't prohibit such practices.

To help prevent that kind of behavior, the Basel Action Network offers certification through its e-Stewards program to help identify service providers that responsibly recycle and reuse electronics.

Some companies go as far as tracking the disposal process, even when it's being handled by a trusted third party. Financial services company Citigroup, for example, has a variety of disposal methods for the IT equipment used by its 300,000 employees around the world.

If an aging system isn't recovered for reuse, and if resale isn't an option, the equipment will be "demanufactured" by one of the company's three main outsourcers, explains Jim Brown, senior vice president responsible for desktop asset management at Citi.

Brown, who is based in St. Louis, says he works closely with his providers to understand exactly where all of the materials in discarded equipment end up. "They tell us where the metals go -- that a component went to this plastics company. Some of it goes to Trex, which makes plastic boards, some of it is used to make pontoons on docks," he says. "We have a zero-landfill policy, and we take the long view on recycling."

Citigroup set up its disposal process so that internal customers are encouraged to recycle, he says. The company's department managers must account for the cost of equipment disposal in their budgets, so the more they can reuse within their departments, the less they have to pay.

Brown established a centralized system whereby the disposal outsourcer pays Citigroup residuals on the components that can't be reused in their current form, based on the going prices of the broken-down commodities -- plastics, some precious metals and paper. Last year, Brown says, those payments more than covered the cost of disposal and actually became a source of revenue.

For true cradle-to-grave environmentalism, companies need to be mindful of not just the recycling and disposal process, but of the entire life cycle of the equipment.

Consider the repurpose route

As part of its IT equipment purchasing process, Seventh Generation, a maker of green household and personal-care products, considers whether IT equipment can be recycled and the environmental impact of the process the vendor used to manufacture the system, says Nancy Stoddard, vice president of IT at the Burlington, Vt.-based company.

"People need to think about the whole picture, from the beginning to the end -- not only the hardware, but the [vendors] you're purchasing the hardware from: Are they being green?" she says. "Apple until very recently was behind the game, for example, and now they're ahead of it."

If the systems are going to be repurposed, the company wipes away the data, cleans up the machines and reimages them with the software they came from the factory with, explains Adam Quinn, manager of IT support at Seventh Generation.

Seventh Generation does all of the retiring of equipment itself. Since the company has only about 100 employees, that's not such a daunting task. "If you're dealing with thousands of computers, it's hard," Stoddard says.

However, size can have its advantages. Citigroup, for example, leverages its clout with large vendors like Microsoft Corp. so it can transfer software licenses along with equipment that it's donating, says Brown, explaining that donations are facilitated through its Citi Foundation charitable arm.

When it comes to repurposing, the Indiana Office of Technology is able to keep alive much of the technology equipment that has grown too old for its own 26,000 users by giving it to the state's school systems, says Paul Baltzell, director of distributed services.

"Schools use [older] PCs in classes where students are learning to keyboard and not doing complex things. Or someone in the office uses them, or if someone is learning to fix computers," he says. "That way we're getting a second life out of our PCs."

The state works with two outsourcers, Unicor and Workforce Inc., to dispose of whatever equipment isn't passed along to school systems. At no cost to Indiana, these companies pick up old IT equipment, disassemble it, sell what can be sold and recycle the rest -- but they don't share any of the proceeds from sales with the state either, says Baltzell.

As complicated as the process of properly retiring old hardware is, it's important to spend the time and money figuring out what works best for your company. "Over the last couple years, it's become a bigger deal," Lechner says, "and we're getting better at it."

Garretson is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at caragarretson@gmail.com.

This story, "Recycling IT assets is serious business" was originally published by Computerworld .

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies