Tech recycling: Big IT shops get serious about asset disposal

Getting rid of old tech equipment now takes as much forethought as purchasing it in the first place did. Here's how corporations are coping.

IT 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 also need to figure out what to do with the systems that are past their prime.

old hardware gear

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 corporate 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 practitioners say.

Buying brand-new systems doesn't cost very much these days, whereas refurbishing systems internally requires significant amounts of time, money and expertise. (Outsourcers will often refurbish systems for clients to redeploy internally, donate or resell -- for a fee, of course.)

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 refrigerators), but this practice isn't yet widespread.

Giving or selling old equipment to employees for personal use is another option, although the IT professionals interviewed for this article said their companies don't do that, because of the cost and effort required to make old equipment truly usable. Also, employees frequently expect the corporate IT department to continue to support such systems, and that's a drain on resources.

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 whichever options they've chosen.

"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 calls in 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.

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