Recycling IT Assets Is Serious Business: How to Start

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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.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
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).

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 LLP 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% to 2% 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 Inc.'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 LLC.

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