When an old computer breaks, it seems an almost natural response to follow the standard waste disposal policy and think ‘ah, it’s outdated, I might as well send it to the dump and buy a new one’. However, the old phrase ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ is very applicable in this article. What if your broken computer is only broken temporarily, and that whilst you go and buy a new one, it can be repaired?
This blog post is about taking that step beyond reuse of surplus assets and moving into repair and refurbishment- to reduce procurement demand by extending the life span of products.
Repair refurbishment and remodelling of assets should be the part of any organisational circular economy strategy. This activity is the next step after reuse.
In this situation, you are able to give the older model to someone who really needs it, like a department in your organisation that has even older computers than you!
In this blog post we talk to someone who knows a thing or two about repairing IT and bringing it back to life. We also have a downloadable document at the end if you are considering setting up your own electronics repair activity in your organisation.
We welcome Jake Lester from the Colorado State University (CSU) Surplus Department, to talk about reuse, repair and refurbishment of assets, especially the good practices involved in IT equipment refurbishment.
Jake, how do you tackle IT waste at CSU?
“We take all of the surplus IT assets that the staff in the university do not need anymore. The items have reached the end of the ir first life. . We try to refurbish them as best as possible, and then we have a storefront where we resell them to the public. We get all varieties of stuff, from desktops and laptops to enterprise IT equipment. If we can't refurbish it, we have some recycling outlets that we go through who break it down into pieces and recycle it as best they can.”
What does the refurbishment process look like?
“So, we have a team of two or three students who do it. We boot them (the computers) up. We use Linux right now to test them out and ensure that all of the basic parts work, as far as just the desktops and laptops. We wipe them completely clean, and we install Linux on them as well for the end user. We can handle up to about 20 or so computers at a time.”
Do you train the technicians, or do they train each other?
“Since we're kind of a small shop, we definitely rely on them pretty heavily to train each other and get each other up to speed on what's going on. We have a Wiki page on our network that we keep up to date on everything, like processes, and all that we use. I had a background in IT-related stuff, help desk sort of stuff, and saw this position open up and I wanted to help divert the waste stream.”
What are the main problems you face in your refurbishment department?
“A lot of it is parts that might not be readily available. It can be difficult to source some odds and end parts. We refurbish cell phones here as well. We try to keep a lot of the common spare parts, just so we have something that we can reuse.”
Is the refurbishment department sustainable financially?
“Yeah, we cover our costs. We're self-funded, so we don't actually get anything from the university. We do charge fees for recycling, especially for the CRT monitors and some data destruction. We're charged a fee basically by the companies we use, so we pass that along, but other than that we're funded primarily by sales through the store. We actually do quite a bit on eBay too. For some of the more consumer stuff, we have eBay, and then there's a website over here that deals specifically with government liquidation. Some of the bigger lots and some of the harder-to-sell really enterprise niche stuff will go on there.”
Do you ever refurbish surprising or retro IT equipment?
“We get a lot of vintage equipment that’s fun to play around with. Stuff that’s twenty to thirty years old, like IBM PCs. I’ve had an original portable computer, one of the first ‘laptops’, it looks like a suitcase and is about as big as one! We get a good price for a lot of these things on eBay, but the unfortunate thing is we can’t sell any of the hard drives without wiping them, so a lot of the work relies on really old software. It can be tricky, but we find it fun.”
Ok, Jake, for the sake of our readers, what advice would you give to someone who wanted to set up their own version of what you’ve got running there at CSU?
“There are a lot of great products out there that'll help you get going and help manage your inventory. I think a big thing is organisation and managing the inventory you get in and the parts that you have, just so you know what you've got, and you're ready for anything that comes through. Having a good management system, organization process, storage warehouse and equipment will help you get ahead. Our technicians here are all students from within the university who have a great knowledge of computers, or at least a great interest and are keen to learn. We’re not able to offer warranties for products, so to build trust we have a testing station where we can plug an item in and show that it’s functioning.”
“The easiest thing to refurbish would be a windows computer or laptop. If they boot up and you can get them to like a Linux DVD, 9 times out of 10 you can get them to work great. That’s an easy way to get started and laptops especially have a lot of demand. I think there's definitely opportunity there for universities and organisations to get some value back with their electronics recycling.”
How do you prepare for the future?
“We’re always looking at what’s three years behind us in terms of technology, so we’re expecting a lot more phones, especially iPhones, and a lot of tablets. We’re building up our spare parts and learning more about refurbishing these items.”
Are departments within the university purchasing equipment, or just students?
“Departments are welcome to shop here and purchase anything they may need. Sometimes the department just needs a computer to sit in a corner, and they'll come here and pick up a little $30 desktop. If an employee is leaving the university or retiring, we can sell them their work phone, and we just make sure it works well and wipe it of any university data.”
Warp It Conclusion
How brilliant are all of the ideas and suggestions that Jake had for us? What he’s basically saying is that you can cover your costs, you can cover salaries and wages, you can cover training students, you can cover the software, the management and even the space all through the revenues. What you're doing is you're actually maximising the value of the university, because you're taking these broken items, which you are then reselling and making a revenue from, and it's going back into the student community, back into the local community and back into the refurbishment project.