Desktops

Recycling IT Assets Is Serious Business: How to Start

"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% 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 Inc., 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 Inc., 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."

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

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from a feature that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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