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When it comes to recycling old IT equipment, universities can help educate the Earth without costing it, writes Simon Fry

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | July 08, 2015 | Technology

According to WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme,) an estimated 10 million tonnes of electronic products will be bought in the UK before 2020’s end, 25% of which will be IT equipment, consumer electronics and display screens. This figure comprises 20 tonnes of gold, 400 tonnes of silver and seven tonnes of platinum group metals – which is evidence of IT products retaining value when reaching the end of their working life.

At a micro level, universities need to adopt disposal policies which protect both sensitive data and the planet. Indeed, conscientious universities might consider helping IT users on the other side of the world when they come to update equipment. The need for establishments to be increasingly environmentally responsible is taken up by companies such as the Stone Group, a leading provider of IT solutions to the education and public sector. Head of recycling Tien Nguyen said: “At the time of obsolescence, a university will consider internal redeployment, a decision taken by its IT department on the equipment’s condition, re-deployability, specification and usefulness. Alternatively, the equipment could be advertised for sale to other university departments or schools for non-business use, but if disposal is necessary, it will be arranged through the university’s IT department and done in accordance with the University Sustainability Policy, complying with WEEE regulations through a licensed IT recycler.”

End of the line?

Obsolescence depends on various variables, not least usage, while Tien stresses a piece of equipment or device being out of warranty does not render it automatically obsolete. The potential to give IT equipment a new life is impressive. “If correctly refurbished, most IT equipment such as screens, PCs and servers can be refreshed for the second user market, with the Stone Group able to reuse over 85% of equipment processed through our recycling facility. Certain components such as tested and securely data-sanitised memory and hard disk drives can be used to upgrade and enhance the lifespan of second user IT equipment.”

Naturally, data must be considered at the time of removal, with the Stone Group’s award-winning and fully accredited IT recycling facility having received exclusive status as ADISA Certified with Distinction. Operating with industry best practice, their onsite recycling facility uses Blancco (erasure software) exclusively, ensuring every data-bearing product is cleansed in accordance with the HMG Information Assurance Standard Number 5. This is an auditable process providing verifiable, tamper-proof erasure evidence. The group also offers an in-house hard drive shredding service ensuring data is physically destroyed.

Increasing use of BYOD will come with increasing responsibility for owners. “Around 60%–80% of organisations have no formal BYOD policy, which provide clear rules and guidance regarding information governance and recycling. An increase in BYOD responsibility for the ethical and secure disposal of end-of-life hardware will inevitably shift toward the end user. This has impacted the recycling rate and ability for universities to impose their internal IT disposal policy strategy.”

A smooth transition

An arrangement with a major IT equipment company ensures smooth transitions at City University London, where purchasing manager Keith Wood said: “We predominantly use Dell equipment for staff and students, the students’ PCs being desktop-based (ie not portable) and coming with a four-year warranty, all machines being replaced when this warranty expires. Staff PCs, both laptop and desktop have a similar four-year warranty and are replaced continuously throughout the year as and when the warranty expires. Whatever residual value is obtained from the ‘old’ equipment is used to offset the cost of the ‘new’ equipment.”

Such old equipment is removed regularly and disposed of responsibly. Wood adds: “If the hard drive and/or RAM are unsuitable to use for upgrade purposes an external company collects these computers monthly. This company has a strong and ongoing commitment to meet CSR criteria and ensures it meets exacting disposal and data erasure standards. They operate a zero landfill policy and aim to reuse 90% of all IT equipment collected, the remaining 10% going to their waste management partners for further refinement. Many students do bring in their own devices but we have seen no drop in demand for our student lab computers. On the contrary, in recent student surveys there are always requests for more computing equipment to be made available.”

Cardiff University takes a holistic view of IT equipment use and waste management, in line with the University’s ISO 14001 environmental management system, according to Christopher Dickson, environmental compliance officer, Cardiff University IT Service. “We aim to use central desktop and laptop PCs for around five years although it can occasionally be longer. During its life, equipment is sometimes upgraded (for example, memory may be added) if necessary or redeployed from specialist use to less-demanding tasks to ensure the equipment’s most effective and efficient use. Our aim is to fully support the University’s leading-edge research and teaching while also giving the best value-for-money and lowest overall carbon footprint.”

A move from actual to virtual products has brought many benefits. “We have also undertaken a large programme of server virtualisation, helping to make IT services evermore resilient while reducing the need to buy new servers. This has reduced IT waste, capital cost, embodied manufacturing energy and recurrent electricity usage all at the same time. We have found students are increasingly bringing in their own devices but have yet to see a significant decrease in usage of university IT equipment such as open access PCs.”

An environmentally sound disposal policy completes Cardiff University’s impressive IT eco-credentials. “At the end of the equipment’s life we take a coordinated, cross-University approach to waste management using an approved external service provider. Working equipment is generally refurbished for further use via a digital inclusion scheme and non-working equipment is 100% recycled, with nothing going to landfill.”     

Helping others in need

When the time comes to dispose of IT equipment, universities have an attractive opportunity to help people in need. Computer Aid International is a charity established in 1998, receiving around 15,000 PCs and monitors, 2,500 laptops and around 100 tablets annually for its projects in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Chile and the UK. The volume of equipment it receives has fallen by around 30% since the recession’s beginning in 2009 but this trend has recently been reversed. Around 80% of incoming equipment remains functioning while 20% needs repairing or recycling. Rajeh Shaikh, marketing and PC donations manager, said: “We regularly receive equipment from universities such as King’s College London, Cranfield and Bournemouth while Birmingham has recently started donating tablets for use in our projects in the UK and developing countries. We do not ‘recycle’ computers per se but rather refurbish IT equipment.

“As an ICT4D (ICT for development) charity we safely remove any data from the machines’ hard drives by using Kroll Ontrack and Blancco erasing solutions. We clean-up and add RAMs to the machines so when sent to programmes they have an extended lifespan of four to five years. IT equipment we cannot reuse is still data-wiped and then recycled by one of our partners. We also sometimes dismantle equipment allowing for the reuse of components such as hard drives and fans in another machine. We also try to introduce students with an IT device no longer in use to our scheme.”

Being environmentally friendly, and being seen to be so, is increasingly important for universities seeking to attract students who have themselves grown up with recycling part of their everyday life. It has never been easier for universities to be active in this area and their embracing of their responsibilities is to be admired. Quite wonderfully, as universities carry out the work of educating the next generation of UK citizens, they can also help spread knowledge in less developed countries, at no expense to themselves, educating the Earth without costing it.

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