Ethical ITAD – Doing the Right Thing

By Andy Warner

Data security and The EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) are dominating many industry conversations right now. With all the focus on data security and the obvious financial pressures on businesses to reduce costs, a lot of people forget one of the other most important considerations when IT equipment is at the end of its useful life: where does all of the actual equipment go when you are finished with it?

Worldwide, the amount of electrical items being produced is staggering—there are now more mobile phones in the world than there are people. I have my own personal smart phone, a work smart phone, a work laptop and my own PC at home, my children both have laptops and smart phones and a tablet, my wife also has a smart phone and a laptop; that’s a lot of IT equipment in just one household.

The number of electrical items that people use is growing all the time, and as the internet of things takes hold, the number of connected IT devices is only going to grow as people embrace the world IOT. In addition to the sheer volume of devices that people have today, the rate at which they replace them is increasing as well, especially when it comes to smart phones and tablets. This means that more and more items are being disposed of every year.

According to a UN study an estimated 41.8 million tons of e-waste is disposed of annually. Even more troubling is the fact that a considerably large percentage of that e-waste is shipped to developing countries. When you also consider the number of items that are just thrown into landfills each year, it leaves a very small percentage of equipment that was actually disposed of properly.

Numerous documentaries and news articles have covered where used IT equipment ends up, and the harm that it does. Most people would be appalled to learn about the toxic substances contained inside things like computer screens, and the methods that people in developing countries use to recover precious metals and raw materials from them. The lack of environmental or health-and-safety precautions in developing countries around these types of recovery practices only compounds the problem. Perhaps worst of all, in many places, it is often children who are sifting through the huge piles of e-waste and using acid or open fires to recover metals. The damage that is being done to these children’s health, and the reduction in their life expectancy because of it, is shocking. It makes you wonder why this isn’t at the top of everyone’s agenda when considering how to dispose of old IT equipment. That’s before you even get into the issue of the toxic chemicals poisoning the land and getting into people’s water supplies.

With environmental activists and organisations like the BBC and other news agencies around the world publishing things around digital dumping, if you are an IT manager responsible for the end-of-life equipment at your organisation, can you image what would happen if your company’s logo appeared on some IT equipment in one of these news articles?

Luckily though there is light at the end of the tunnel as there are providers out there that actually do the right thing with end-of-life IT equipment. They not only protect the environment, help people in developing countries and make sure your brand is protected; they can also ensure you get residual value returns for your equipment.

When selecting a disposal method for your end-of-life IT equipment there are lots of things to consider to ensure you are doing it ethically. Firstly the most environmentally friendly thing you can do is reuse the equipment. This can be done in many ways:

  1. Upgrading, refurbishing and repairing units where needed can significantly extend the useful life of equipment. Adding more RAM or a solid-state drive can breathe new life into equipment and dramatically extend the life of a unit, improving the return on investment.
  2. Reselling equipment after it has been securely wiped. This not only ensures equipment is used for as long as possible and not thrown away, it also is a more efficient method than traditional recycling to avoid the carbon emissions involved in melting down equipment to recover raw materials. Best of all, the residual value returns can be used to help offset the cost of new equipment reducing the cost of change.
  3. Donating equipment to charity is also an option that is not only good for the environment, but can also form part of a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. It is important that the right sort of equipment is selected for these donation programs—equipment with a reasonable life left remaining in it and that has been properly tested for functionality and electrical safety. It also needs a new operating system installed. Many companies see this as a potential money saver while doing the right thing, but it is important to note that there is a cost to ensuring data security through wiping; the collection and testing of units needs to be paid for, as does the new operating system for the units. There is also no residual value returns for the equipment, but it is still a very good thing to do, and from a commercial standpoint it can be very good for a company’s reputation.

Some equipment is not suitable for reuse because it is malfunctioning. At this point there are two options: 1) equipment can be repaired for reuse as per the above, or 2) it can be stripped for parts, RAM, processors, hard drives and other parts can easily be transplanted into other units to upgrade or repair them, therefore helping extend the useful life of other equipment. If equipment is of a too-low specification for reuse or is beyond economic repair then it should be recycled with as little as possible sent to landfill (preferably nothing). If you are disposing of older IT equipment and your disposal company claims to resell these units, you should question who exactly is buying units of this low a specification, and are they really selling them for reuse or are they going to end up in the developing world being stripped unethically for their raw materials?

To dispose of items properly you need to find a reputable IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) provider. In addition to the usual security and financial checks, you should look at a provider’s environmental certifications. ISO14001 is a good place to start for their environmental management system, and there are also more specific ITAD certifications like R2, ADISA and E Stewards. It’s unlikely you will find a company with all of these certifications, but the more independent verification of a company’s processes you can get, the better. It’s also important to know the difference between companies that state they work to ISO14001 or are in compliance with it, and those that are actually certified by a proper independent certification body like the BSI—if they aren’t actually certified then it doesn’t count.

The best thing you can do is go and see all potential providers and audit their services yourself. Ask as many questions as possible, walk through their processing facility, watch their processes in action and talk to people other than their sales people. Make sure they explain exactly what they do and ask to see as much evidence as possible before choosing your disposal partner.

Making the right choice at the point of end of life of your IT equipment will not only ensure you protect your company’s brand, it can also be financially beneficial for your company and provide great promotional opportunities linked to your CSR policy, and all while doing the right thing for the environment.

About the Author

Andy Warner is Head of Corporate Services, UK and Ireland, for RDC, an Arrow Company