Tech recycling or refurbishing? Schools must decide on devices

5 steps for deciding whether to refurbish, recycle or replace outdated hardware

School districts are increasingly adopting new approaches to tech recycling and replacement, sometimes deciding to refurbish outdated equipment.

Electronic devices make up the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, and schools—with their rapid turnover of technology—make major contributions to that river of e-waste. Administrators can follow five best practices to tackle the problem in a practical, sustainable way—while keeping long-term goals in mind.

1. Evaluate current technology

Deciding whether to trade in, refurbish or dispose of technology poses a multifaceted challenge. Administrators should weigh the age of the equipment against the costs of repair or replacement. Also, they should consider each item’s service history, physical condition, and ability to run current versions of essential software and operating systems.

“Laptops get damaged sooner, and when you get down to that $150 to $200 price point in bulk, refurbishing might not be for you,” says Michael Bachman, director of client services for the EduCycle Computer Reconditioning Program at Towson University in Maryland.

As the cost of new Chromebooks drops, purchasing refurbished equipment may make less sense today than it did a decade ago. If you do purchase refurbished equipment, make sure it meets industry standards, says Jim Drohan, vice president of North American sales at CDI Computer Dealers Inc.

“Look for a company that refurbishes assets en masse and recertifies them, paying close attention to data erasure and security standards,” Drohan says.

When it comes to desktops, a cost comparison may show that refurbishing often saves money. “It can be tough to break out of the traditional mindset that it’s easier to buy new computers,” Bachman adds.

The EduCycle program’s spreadsheet calculates the cost of refurbishment versus purchasing new equipment (see sidebar). Administrators are often surprised to discover that in many cases, refurbishing used computers results in significant savings, he says.

2. Develop long-term objectives

While determining short-term plans for current equipment, administrators should also create long-term technology objectives whether or not they’ve adopted a BYOD or 1-to-1 initiative, or retained a desktop computer lab.

“Districts need to think about where they’re going before they decide how they’re going to get there,” says Bachman.

Read moreRepair or replace technology—how to decide

Some districts have moved away from on-site software management and toward cloud hosting and software as a service. This shift impacts how soon schools should trade in aging equipment. Computers that are used to access a cloud environment, rather than to run software locally, will last longer. “At that point, the computer becomes a gateway to the cloud,” Bachman says. “As long as the monitor works and the machine turns on, the only limiting factor is the speed of your internet connection.”

A long-term plan should also cover financial sustainability. Schools that maximize the residual value of equipment save more on subsequent acquisitions, says Charles Duarte, vice president of business development at Diamond Assets, a company that partners with schools to buy back used Apple hardware.

“Make sure you’re looking at total cost of ownership, not just the sticker price of a device,” he says. “For example, Apple will always appear to be more costly, but when you factor in residual value, in most cases you’ll see it’s less costly over time.”

3. Develop a tech recycling plan

Create and communicate a tech recycling plan to ensure that students and staff know what to do with broken electronics. Such guidelines can be part of your district’s wider tech recycling plan or a statewide model, and could include a designated day for students to bring electronic waste to school.

“Around here, municipalities have a recycling day, and the districts sometimes take it on as a challenge to promote mindful disposal of electronics,” says Joseph Bavazanno, director of the ADP Center for Learning Technologies at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Bavazanno advises districts with BYOD programs to inform students about tech recycling options. “These districts have less control over what happens to student devices, so it’s extremely important that students know what to do when their computers break,” he says.

Read moreHow to plan an edtech ‘fix-it fair’

Implementing a lesson plan can reinforce the importance of tech recycling for students and teachers. Develop your own or use a free resource, such as “Greener Gadgets,” which is geared toward elementary grades.

Keep in mind that responsible recycling of e-waste carries a cost. “You can’t properly dispose of these materials in North America without a fee,” says Drohan, of CDI. “Some materials will have value that can be used to reduce the cost, and sometimes mitigate it entirely.”

When you choose a service for recycling e-waste, make sure its processes are certified by the National Association for Information Destruction. “There remains a huge amount of data risk and a legal liability associated with recycling electronic equipment,” Drohan says. “Even if you think you’ve erased the hard drive, it could still contain sensitive information or be traceable to your district unless data erasure is performed correctly.”

4. Partner with a refurbishing service or trade-in company

A number of organizations partner with school districts across the country. Ask administrators in your area for recommendations.

Arizona’s AZStRUT program lets some middle school students reassemble computers and take them home. Other devices are donated to Title I schools.

Towson University’s EduCycle program focuses on education. Leaders invite students as young as first-graders to participate in hands-on computer refurbishing workshops. “We pull used computers from our campus and clean them up, add more memory if needed, and either repurpose them on campus or donate them to the community,” says Kate Scanlan, EduCycle’s manager of client services and projects.

Volunteers, most from local K-12 schools, staff the center. The all-day sessions also include lunch and a campus tour. “Our ideal age groups are in middle to high school, but we will cater the sessions in some cases to much younger students,” Scanlan says. “From about sixth or seventh grade, they can come in and pick the skills right up.”

In the Southwest, AZStRUT (Arizona Students Recycling Used Technology) refurbishes donated devices and delivers them to Title I schools. “We also do technology camps where a middle school student might come in and take apart a computer, put it back together, and then get to take it home,” says Executive Director Tom Mehlert. Costs are covered by either the school or the grant funding AZStRUT receives for hosting the program.

5. Engage students with the process

Schools and districts can create a technology upcycling center where staff and students work together on refurbishing older equipment. Schools can also host a one-time event in which students watch volunteers perform basic computer repairs.

“We’ve found that demonstrating is the most important aspect for students,” says Scanlan, of EduCycle. “We have a checklist and go through it step by step, and demonstrate the tasks first. By then, most students are ready to work on a computer themselves.”

And a teacher doesn’t need to be a technical genius to learn computer repair skills and teach them to students. When Scanlan trains new instructors, they usually feel prepared to teach the class after three sessions.

Ultimately, students who refurbish or recycle technology will gain the skills to repair or responsibly dispose of their own devices. That’s a huge benefit for schools, districts and communities.

Jessica Leigh Brown is a writer in Knoxville, Tennessee, who regularly covers education technology.

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