Out of sight, but not out of mind

Explore Assurity 1 December 2015 Simon Anderson

The server room at Assurity in Wellington is full of computers. In most cases, this would seem an optimal use of this space, but not these computers as these are old or broken, no longer useful due to business obsolescence. They have an entourage too – of monitors (how did we work on screens so small?), cables, keyboards, docking stations etc etc. A mound of e-waste.

So why the hand-wringing language of the last paragraph? Isn’t this just a matter of putting it out on the kerb? Is e-waste any different from normal waste? It is different – and for a number of reasons. But before discussing these reasons, we first need to think about how they were identified.

Assurity strives to be a values-driven organisation. All staff, from the CEO to our grads have a set of shared values identified by the staff, with all new recruits hired on the basis of them sharing these values. Shared values create the trust that allows empowerment which promotes organisational agility.   

So what are these values and how are they applicable? Assurity’s values are We Challenge, We Lead, We Care and We Value Potential. Of these, ‘We Care’ resonated strongly with waste disposal in that “We're naturally mindful of our people, clients and community. We value compassion, humility, transparency, honesty and a sharing, generous spirit”. Mindfulness of community suggests that the disposal of waste should be carefully considered. Mindfulness of our people and clients indicates consideration of how these old assets related to our staff and clients. 

Mindfulness of how this waste is disposed of is very important as e-waste contains hundreds of materials, some highly recyclable, some highly toxic – and often both. For example, a CRT computer monitor can contain up to 3kg of lead – so burying this in landfill is not the best outcome, either locally or internationally. Care is also needed with the selection of recyclers as less than ethical, and sometimes straight-out, illegal operators aim to cash in on the good intentions of others.   

Thus the adage "one person's trash is another person's treasure” is true for e-waste. Another example of this is that a working computer, albeit an old one, is treasure to those without one. The final treasure is the data on old computers – that is treasure to those with less than honest intentions. Mindfulness to staff and clients means their data needs to be disposed of with care. This is true whether the machine is to be recycled in whole or in parts.

So e-waste is different. These reasons shaped our approach to disposal, along with some operational and financial decisions. First, we decided that we’re not in the business of repairing and upgrading old machines. For example, we had a functional, 10-year-old machine running XP 2002 and a five-year-old machine with a broken video card running Windows 7. Keeping these machines running makes little sense operationally and financially and so we created a rule that, if a machine is over four years old and broken or running on a non-supported OS (especially those no longer used by any of our clients), it would become e-waste.

The next question was how to dispose of the machines. If these machines had value, either whole or recycled as parts/component materials, which of these values would Assurity realise? Advice was sought from a recycler and a charity. Computers in Homes is a charity that places computers in the homes of families in underserved communities and teaches them how to "use the internet, email and basic computer skills in their everyday lives”. Their co-ordinator Di explained that they did not take old machines from companies, but instead purchased recycled machines from e-waste recyclers configured with Microsoft tools under support contacts.

When I reflected on this, it was an understandable position, as if these machines in their current configuration were of little use to us, then they would be of little use to anybody else. Andy from ITRecycla explained that reconfiguring and on-selling old machines worked best at scale, making reference to universities and corporates. He said that data safety could not be certified by wiping drives and, if this was critical, then drive destruction was a better option.  

So what did Assurity’s Wellington office decide? We decided that our value of ‘We Care’ was best met by recycling the machines to their component materials and destroying the hard drives. While the idea of passing working machines to someone without a computer was attractive, it wasn’t possible operationally. This was reinforced when we considered that, not only are we responsible for the destruction of our own data, but also that of our staff and clients.

We chose ITRecycla to do the recycling as they met the requirement as an ethical recycler and had the general business traits we look for in our suppliers. They took all our e-waste, charging only for drive destruction and certification. They broadly work within the Ministry of the Environment recommended standards for e-waste (AS/NZS5377:2013) and hold a Basel Permit for its export. Finally – and most importantly – they were recommended by the Wellington Sustainability Trust, another values-based organisation and one I admire.

So, in conclusion, we now have a nice tidy server room rather than an e-waste storage room. Achieving this gave us a wonderful opportunity to investigate and apply what our values mean in practice. We discovered that we don’t need to preclude operational or financial considerations in making value-based decisions.

I asked myself why we kept this e-waste for so long. Are we hoarders? Maybe. But I feel this hoarding is due to an unease caused by our perceptions of the value of these tools and their actual value due to rapid obsolesce.

To see a tool as complex and expensive as a computer as a consumable creates a tension, as many of us struggle to treat it as one. I think recycling helps ease that tension through giving this waste a value and a second life, that the valuable remnants of consumption are actually consumed by recycling, and not put out of sight and out of mind in a hole in the ground.