Paul Abston, Data Center Manager and Operations Control Room Team Lead, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

May 24 2022

Asset Disposition Services Get Rid of Devices So Agencies Don’t Have To

Oak Ridge National Laboratory arranged for vendors to remove a retired supercomputer; other agencies provide recycling services.

To properly dispose of electronic waste, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory relies on a combination of do-it-yourself methods, ­third-party recycling companies and salvage handlers that auction off ­reusable equipment.

But in 2019, when it came time to retire and remove its large Titan supercomputer, the national lab turned to another option: its manufacturer’s takeback program.

When ORNL initially inked the contract for Cray to build the 200-cabinet computing system, the ­vendor agreed to take back and recycle the equipment for a nominal fee when the supercomputer reached the end of its life.

“We are driven to do the right thing for the environment and for taxpayers,” says Paul Abston, ORNL’s data center manager and ­operations control room team lead. “We can handle small systems on our own, but we’re not set up to handle a big system like Titan. It would have cost us a large sum of money to try to handle 200 cabinets full of equipment ourselves.”

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Government Requires Agencies to Attempt Electronics Recycling

The federal government has committed to reducing landfill waste and disposing of electronics in a safe, environmentally friendly way for years. A 2018 executive order reinforced that goal by requiring that recycling be part of an electronics disposal program.

Federal agencies turn to asset disposition services, such as tech vendors’ takeback and recycling programs, where the manufacturers handle the logistics of picking up end-of-life equipment, erasing data and sanitizing each device, and properly disposing of them through resale, reuse or recycling.

Some agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service, run their own recycling programs and partner with certified recyclers. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) even operates its own recycling centers. In both cases, the agencies make their recycling programs available to other federal agencies.

Governments play an important role in fighting climate change, and their sustainability policies, from regulations to being more ­sustainable in their own internal processes, contribute to that effort, says Forrester Research analyst Abhijit Sunil.

That includes procuring green energy or green resources, ­optimizing IT infrastructure so they are energy-efficient, and using proper end-of-lifecycle device management and e-waste ­management, he says. The recycling efforts by ORNL, USPS and the BOP are good examples of agencies doing their part, he says.

“To get to net-zero emissions requires almost every industry to play their part, and governments are part of the equation, so any action is good action,” Sunil says.

man in white shirt
Recycling is not always easy. The easy way is to send equipment to the landfill, but we want to do it right, protect our environment and promote the best interests of taxpayers.”

Paul Abston Data Center Manager and Operations Control Room Team Lead, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Agencies May Sell Used Electronics After Data Is Cleared

Federal agencies can turn to certified electronics recyclers for proper IT asset disposal, from clearing data from the devices to recycling parts that can’t be reused. If the equipment is still usable, recyclers are permitted by regulation to sell the devices. Agencies can use the profits earned to buy new IT equipment from their prime contractor.

Those are the exact ­services that AnythingIT offers. Twenty years ago, the IT asset management services company, based in North Bergen, N.J., was the first company to get a government ­contract from the General Services Administration to take advantage of Federal Management Regulation 102-39, which allows ­agencies to sell property, such as used IT equipment, and use the money earned for new technology, says David Bernstein, CEO and founder of AnythingIT.

“Our data security certified services give agencies a safe process to retire their equipment, and it can increase their IT budgets,” Bernstein says. “We handle the certified data wiping and the proper environmental ­procedures to make sure nothing ends up in a landfill.”

AnythingIT has ­partnered with technology solutions provider CDW•G to offer the reselling service. First, AnythingIT provides onsite packaging and removal from any agency site. They inspect and value the equipment to give agencies an estimate of potential proceeds. Then they inventory the equipment, capture asset information like serial numbers and remove labels that ­identify previous owners.

The company then tests the equipment, checks the BIOS to get configuration information and wipes the data using Defense Department standards. Used ­electronics that can still be used are sold in Latin America and Europe.

Used electronics that aren’t sold are sent to ­recycling vendors who break the equipment down to raw materials so they can be reused again, Bernstein says.

WATCH: See how the Census Bureau relied on CDW•G to dispose of its devices after the 2020 Census.

How to Recycle a Supercomputer

ORNL’s Titan supercomputer, once the fastest computing system in the world, was a workhorse that powered research for scientists worldwide for seven years.

But in 2019, the national lab retired the system to make way for the new Frontier supercomputer, which will be 50 times faster than Titan and will become the country’s first exascale supercomputer.

Removing Titan from the 9,000-square-foot data center in Oak Ridge, Tenn., took about six weeks. Cray managed the recycling, but Abston oversaw the entire process to make sure the removal met federal requirements, including Environmental Protection Agency standards.

“My office was 60 feet away, so I observed the work, checked the status and answered questions,” he recalls. “Sometimes I helped with tools or helped push something out of the way. I also made sure trucks got in and out and were loaded correctly.”  

First, Cray hired an outside vendor to remove 10,000 gallons of refrigerant used to cool Titan. That vendor placed the coolant in storage cylinders and took them offsite to clean the coolant so it could be reused, Abston says.

Next, a team of Cray engineers disconnected piping and heat exchangers above the cabinets. Then they loaded 430,000 pounds of supercomputer components onto 140 pallets and placed them on 15 trucks, according to ORNL. Even that took some strategy.

“They rolled the cabinets out, but they had to balance how much weight to put on every truck so we didn’t exceed each truck’s capacity,” Abston says.

The trucks hauled the disassembled machine to a third-party recycler in Dallas. The recycling team took apart Titan’s cabinets and internal parts by hand. Then they sorted the materials; recycled the plastic; and sent the steel, aluminum, copper and sheet metal to a metal reprocessor, which makes the material reusable so it can be manufactured into new products. 

The recycling company, which is certified by the international Responsible Recycling (R2) standard, also used special machines to shred more complex components, such as processors and circuit boards. That isolated the precious metals, which the recycler sold to refineries for reuse.   

READ MORE: Asset disposition services often come with Device as a Service solutions.

Electronic Disposal Plans Can Be Built in from the Beginning

The national lab disposes of smaller IT equipment on its own, including small server systems and hard disks. In fact, laboratory staffers disposed of Titan’s storage system by themselves.

Over a nine-month period, when Abston’s team members had time, they used a special onsite shredder to shred the 23,000 hard drives. The lab then offloaded the remaining precious 
metals to a metal recycler.

When ORNL buys new IT equipment, its disposal is always part of the planning, Abston says. In fact, when ORNL purchased the new $600 million Frontier supercomputer, the lab required that the manufacturer would recycle the machine at the end of its life.

“Recycling is not always easy. The easy way is to send equipment to the landfill, but we want to do it right, protect our environment and promote the best interests of taxpayers,” he says. “That takes effort, searching out these contracts and getting the right people to come out and recycle the equipment.”

118,501 pounds reused/268,745 pounds recycled

The amount of small electronics and printer/ink toner cartridges that the U.S.Postal Service disposed of in the 2021 fiscal year through its recycling program

Source: U.S. Postal Service

USPS Employees Recycle Small Electronics By Mail

In 2013, the USPS launched its BlueEarth Federal Recycling Program, which allows federal agencies and their employees to recycle small electronics and printer ink and toner cartridges for free through the mail. All they have to do is log on to the USPS website, type in their information, print a free mailing label and pack up the equipment.

Employees can schedule pickups from their homes, while agencies can simply wait for the postal service to pick up the items with their regular mail, says Dianne L. Shoaf, who recently retired as USPS’ manager of corporate sustainability initiatives.

The postal service partnered with two R2-certified third-party recycling companies to recycle e-waste. One handles printer ink and toner cartridges, while the other recycles small electronics.

“Federal agencies and their employees can do it for free, and they eliminate these items from their inventory,” Shoaf says. “The recycling companies pay for the postage, so we get revenue from that. It’s worth it to them to pay for the postage because they get value from the recyclable materials. If it’s reusable, they can sell it. That’s how they make money, so it’s a win-win all the way around.”

USPS launched the program as part of a broader set of internal sustainability initiatives and to help agencies reduce their impact on the environment, she says. Today, more than 30 federal agencies use the recycling program, including the Defense Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Peace Corps and the Smithsonian.

The USPS also uses the program to recycle its own e-waste. Items that can be recycled include notebook computers, smartphones, DVD players, blade servers and office phones. “It helps agencies and their employees be more green,” Shoaf says.

William DeShazer

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