Last reviewed 14 November 2017

Laura King takes a look at why computers that have reached the end of their corporate life should be sent for reuse.

According to a United Nations University (UNU) study, an average desktop computer in 2004 required well over 10 times its weight in raw materials to make. To be precise, the study calculated it took 240kg of fossil fuel, 22kg of chemicals and 1500kg of water; or the equivalent weight of a rhinoceros. Although today’s figures are likely to be better, the manufacture of a computer still accounts for a large proportion of the carbon consumed in its lifetime, and computers still contain a cocktail of scarce, expensive and hazardous materials.

This huge investment in resources should not go to waste at the end of a computer’s life, and this is one reason that all computers need to be disposed of in accordance with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations. The regulations mean that computers and laptops have to be disposed of properly and cannot be thrown away with general waste.

Refresh and reuse?

The typical refresh cycle of corporate laptops and desktops is around three to five years. Once they reach the end of their useful life for a business, there are several disposal routes that can be followed. Many companies will send WEEE for reuse and recycling in partnership with the company that supplied the equipment, or will use a specialist disposal company.

The recycling and reuse of computer components have many benefits and offers the opportunity to create an “urban mine” whereby materials are reclaimed. However, the best outcome for any waste is its prevention. Indeed, the UNU study predicted that reusing or extending the life of a computer is up to 20 times more energy efficient than recycling it.

Many corporate computers are likely to be reasonably up-to-date and so there is a lot of potential for them to have a life beyond the business. An old machine for one person is perfectly acceptable to another, and so one way of giving computers a new existence is by donating them to social causes. Although some specialist disposal companies will offer social reuse options, working with a dedicated computer donation scheme can have additional benefits.

Keith Sonnet is Chief Executive of Computer Aid, a charity that provides ICT solutions which tackle poverty and help disadvantaged communities. “Using Computer Aid’s asset disposal system is much cheaper than doing it commercially,” he explained. The charity offers completely secure data wiping and full asset tracking free of charge, which, he added: “Companies normally have to pay for.”

Other benefits include making a positive impact in society. Camara, another charitable organisation which provides affordable refurbished computers to schools in disadvantaged areas reckons that every donated computer helps 21 children to become digitally literate.

Certainly, Sonnet believes that sending computers to Computer Aid can provide a boost to any Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme. “We are able to say that using Computer Aid is ensuring that the disposal of assets makes a social impact.” Computer Aid does this by providing reports that show where and how the computers and equipment is used.

How does it work?

With so many streams of waste to manage in any one organisation, any scheme needs to be easy. Machines procured under service contracts, such as through Dell, can be reused through asset donation services which usually include the removal of computers, wiping of data and donation to a chosen, or partner, charity.

Dedicated computer reuse organisations offer a similar service. They can organise secure and tracked collection, asset scanning, data destruction and then will provide reports showing what has happened to each computer. Where computers cannot be reused, they will be recycled in accordance with the WEEE regulations.

“More companies should consider it,” said Sonnet, explaining that the only barrier to reuse is the age of the equipment. “Older equipment can’t normally handle more up-to-date software programmes due to factors such as memory limitations.”

Security and data protection

One concern many organisations have over reuse is the possibility of data from computers being leaked. Beyond the losses associated with breaches of trust and reputational damage, under the Data Protection Act (DPA), companies can face significant fines for serious data leaks. Ensuring that data is completely destroyed from any old equipment is crucial to maintaining compliance with the DPA.

To add to this, data protection is about to get even more serious. On 25 May 2018, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is due to come into force putting even more emphasis on companies to look after the data they hold. One additional requirement will be the need for specific policies that cover how personal data will be protected if computers are to be reused. However, rather than being a hurdle, Sonnet believes that this can provide an opportunity for companies to review their policies and look at how data protection can feed into other areas. “The policies should seek to join up data protection, responsibilities for the environment and CSR.”

Regardless of the requirements of legislation, Sonnet does not believe that data protection should be a barrier. “We use extremely secure systems and can ensure security from collection to our refurbishment facility. We use only Asset Disposal and Information Security Alliance (ADISA) certified transport and can GPS track the collection vehicles to the facility which is MoD certified.”

Considerations

Reuse can offer many benefits, and it is clear that reuse charities are keen to reassure businesses that data protection is paramount. As well as looking at cost and CSR opportunities, some aspects to check when looking for a charity to work with include the following.

  • Do practices comply with environmental protection legislation — including what happens to computers that are not fit for reuse and what happens to donated computers when they do reach the end of their useful life?

  • Do you have assurance that donated computers are tested for electrical safety?

  • Are you satisfied that you have an overview of the disposal chain so that you can be confident that everyone is acting in accordance with legislation?

  • How are donated computers securely transported and tracked, and how is data wiped?

Making sure that the above questions are answered when donating equipment will mean that you meet your legislative requirements, allay any fears, as well as reaping the benefits that reuse can bring.

Subscribers to Croner-i Environment and Sustainability can read more on this topic in Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment.