IT Recycling Pitfalls

In recent years, recycling has become a high priority for IT departments. Yet as recycling efforts are ramping up, more managers are finding themselves coping with shady recyclers that dispose of IT assets in environmentally irresponsible ways, potentially exposing sensitive enterprise data in the process.

By John Edwards
Sun, May 17, 2009

Computerworld — Wendy Burchard, procurement coordinator in the IS department at the University of Richmond in Virginia, knows all about the pitfalls of recycling old equipment.

Green IT: Recycling, It's the Law

Burchard discovered that the firm that was carting away the school's unwanted computer hardware for recycling was actually reselling the equipment. "We thought everything was getting crushed up into little pieces. Then we found out later that they were reselling our stuff," Burchard says. "They never told us they were doing that."

Like most IT professionals these days, Burchard was simply trying to help her shop follow environmental best practices. "We would never want to do anything to hurt the environment," she says. "We want to always do the right thing."

In recent years, recycling has become a high priority for IT departments. Yet as recycling efforts are ramping up, more managers are finding themselves coping with shady recyclers that dispose of IT assets in environmentally irresponsible ways, potentially exposing sensitive enterprise data in the process.

Burchard's brush with an unscrupulous recycler put her job on the line. "The last thing that we want is to have somebody find a University of Richmond computer over in China somewhere," Burchard says.

Avoiding Landfills

Christine Pfendt, CEO of Citigate Cunningham, feels Burchard's pain. When she joined the public relations firm several years ago, Pfendt didn't anticipate acquiring a recycling headache. But that's what she got when she inherited 5,000 square feet of obsolete computer equipment and peripherals. The previous management team had taken a novel approach to equipment disposal, she says. "Instead of recycling or repairing, they'd just buy new equipment" and cast aside the old.

A staunch environmentalist, Pfendt wanted to find ways to use everything to its end of life, avoid waste and keep the items from adding to landfills.

Cutting through the clutter proved to be an arduous task. "We had to figure out what was usable and what was not," she says. Staff members separated items that contained sensitive information from those that didn't. "For cell phones and pagers without confidential info, we gave them to a battered women's shelter," Pfendt says. "For the servers, we created a script that wiped away the info." The machines could then be safely recycled.

Unneeded monitors, however, were advertised on Craigslist. "The person who came for them told us they were a nonprofit," Pfendt recalls. But she later learned it was a for-profit company that was reselling the monitors -- on Craigslist. Lesson learned: "Require a copy of their 501(c)(3) status in advance," she says.

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