No-Nonsense Recycling

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

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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."

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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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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