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Why Companies Should Donate Used PCs Instead of Recycling

When we write about sustainability in CIO, we often focus on how IT leaders can help their companies cut energy consumption. It's an obvious target because it's relatively easy to quantify. Whether or not you have formal goals for reducing carbon emissions, those kilowatts saved and gallons of heating oil conserved drop right to the bottom line.

But there's more to running a sustainable enterprise than managing its appetite for pollution-generating commodities.

"We're not just talking about climate change and recycling and energy conservation," says William Blackburn, who runs a corporate sustainability consultancy. "We look across the board at environmental, social and economic issues together." A strategic approach to sustainability takes into account your company's impact on the communities it serves and operates in.

That may sound daunting, and more than a little hard to measure. But a program in Minneapolis suggests a brilliantly simple way to make a dent: instead of recycling old PCs as you refresh your hardware, donate them.

For the past two years, the city, in partnership with its desktop provider, Unisys, has turned over approximately 1,100 old PCs to a nonprofit called PCs for People, which refurbishes them and then gives them to low-income families. They're reusing equipment in a way that helps to sustain the community by advancing economic and educational opportunity for its residents. (The program won a 2011 Computerworld Honors award.)

Spread the Digital Wealth

"If our residents are more digitally savvy, hopefully they will be more productive, live better lives and feel like the city contributed to that happening for them," says CIO Otto Doll. "If one of the people who gets the machine ends up starting a business, we want that business to be in Minneapolis. We want them to feel this is a true digital society."

Donating the equipment doesn't cost the city, or Unisys, any more than sending it to a recycling facility, says Jeff Wilke, the Unisys program executive who manages the Minneapolis account.

"Our processes that we follow in the disposal of the equipment didn't change," Wilke says. Before turning over the computers, Unisys employees wipe the hard drives as a security measure, as stipulated in the city's contract.

Twenty-five states have electronic waste recycling laws, according to the National Center for Electronics Recycling. Most require manufacturers to take back equipment or pay for recycling; some also ban e-waste from landfills. Yet in 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 40 percent of computers that were ready to be replaced, as measured by weight, were recycled.

Minneapolis doesn't calculate how its program affects its carbon footprint. Neither does Sappi Fine Paper North America. The manufacturer donates e-waste from four locations in Maine and its Boston headquarters to eWaste Alternatives, which employs people with disabilities to refurbish the machines for use by low-income families, schools and nonprofits.

"The social aspect of working with eWaste Alternatives to benefit all of the communities and nonprofits they support was one of the primary factors" that convinced the company to donate, said Sappi's CIO, Anne Ayer, in an email. It doesn't hurt that the company has also reduced its e-waste disposal costs by at least 75 percent.

Why couldn't your company do the same? I think it's a no-brainer.

Follow Executive Editor Elana Varon on Twitter: @elanavaron.


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