The Four Rs of sustainable IT: refurbish, reuse, recycle, ROI

Do you have obsolete and unused computer equipment sitting around the office? Cha-ching! Those old clunkers can be good for cash if you refurbish, reuse and recycle them the right way.

What does your company do with old computing equipment when it has reached its apparent end of life, whether it still works on not? Do you stash it in a warehouse and forget about it? Do you toss it in a trash bin? Do you donate it to a charity and hope it can make use of a bunch of 5-year-old PCs?

In this era of green computing, the days of buy, use and dispose are over. It's time to implement sustainable IT by engaging with an asset management company that can provide the effective recovery, reuse and retirement of your old equipment. Not only is this the responsible thing to do; it also will increase the ROI on your computing assets.

What does a real green data center look like?

TechTurn and Redemtech are two of the largest U.S. companies that provide such a service. They can take your old computer equipment and refurbish the devices so you or someone else can use them again, or break them down into components that are reused, recycled or disposed of responsibly.

This is not the kind of task you want to do in-house. Specialized expertise is required to safely handle the hazardous materials that are found in computers. What's more, this is a process that is highly regulated by federal law. Big fines await any company that doesn't do it right.

Speaking of fines, did you know that in some U.S. states, it's illegal to store large quantities of unused computers for long periods of time? That back room full of clunker equipment could put your company on the wrong side of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Here are some asset management best practices for sustainable IT that also will help maximize the ROI on your computer equipment.

Start with detailed asset tracking the moment you bring any new equipment into your organization. Computer configurations change many times over the course of years of use. What goes out the door at the end of life is usually quite different from what came in the door years earlier. When you decide to retire the equipment, you'll need to know precisely what you have, including the software installed on the computers.

When it comes to asset management, forget the spreadsheet; use a tool that is specifically meant for this purpose and automates the task as much as possible. Example tools would be LANDesk asset management software; Altiris Service and Asset Management Suite; and Asset Manager Pro from Vector Networks.

If you don't already have a vendor that provides complete asset management and recovery, shop around for one and negotiate a contract. You and your vendor should decide ahead of time what you want done with your equipment once the hand-off is made. The vendor should agree to your policies of how you want the assets handled and disposed of, and should be able to certify how this work is done.

A good asset management vendor will provide the following kinds of services for you:

Arrange secure logistics: The vendor will take accountability of your equipment before it leaves your loading dock. This is important to ensure that PCs, servers and storage devices whose hard drives haven't been thoroughly wiped clean yet aren't susceptible to data theft.

Remove all data beyond any measure of recoverability: This is a critically important service, as you don't want your company's sensitive data turning up on refurbished equipment that's sold on eBay. TechTurn, for example, does a very thorough DoD-compliant wiping of the hard disk. Every disk is wiped multiple times and then checked by a human to determine if any bits of data can still be read. The vendor certifies the data sanitization process so you know there is no chance of residual data leakage.

Recover software licenses:  When the vendor wipes the hard disk clean, it can certify the removal of the commercial software. This helps you prove the status of a software license when it's time for a software audit.Refurbish, reuse or recycle: Some of the equipment you hand over to the vendor can be refurbished for reuse; other pieces will be real clunkers that should be disassembled into components for reuse or recycling. A good vendor will extract as much value as possible from your equipment and return some of that value to you. For instance, a monitor could be broken beyond repair, but the power cord is still usable. The vendor can sell the cord to a third party that will put it into some other product.

Equipment that is refurbished can be returned to your company for a second life, or it could be sold to someone else. Either way, your company can extract value from something you thought was worthless.

When a device is broken into its components -- some of which contain hazardous materials such as lead, mercury and cadmium -- the vendor can certify for you how those materials are handled and disposed of. The last thing you want is to find out via a news reporter that your junk computers are polluting a river after being illegally dumped in a landfill.

For the devices that are not returned to you, the vendor can certify for tax purposes that the asset no longer belongs to your company.

Of course the vendor will charge you a fee for providing these services, but it's important to remember that your company still owns the equipment throughout these processes. An ethical vendor will credit you with the proceeds from any asset recovery, such as selling that usable power cord or selling a lot of hundreds of old PCs to a resale channel. The recovered funds can go back into your IT budget to support other project or buy more new equipment.

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