Often old, obsolete mainframes and servers are called boat anchors but even thinking about dumping one in the water is a big no-no.
The National Safety Council estimates that over 315 million computers will become obsolete by the year 2004. Proper disposal of old servers and mainframes is a big issue for companies on both privacy and environmental grounds. Old boxes contain many nasty metals and chemicals. On the privacy front, making sure sensitive data is not recoverable from discarded machines is required by law.
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Disposal of servers and mainframes is probably a bit more evolved in the corporate world than similar efforts for home users, who until recently probably sent their old 386s or 486s off to the local landfill. But businesses have to remain vigilant on the issue. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is much more likely to visit a large company rather than a homeowner if it finds a bunch of computers in a landfill.
For those with more devious minds, scratching the serial numbers off the circuit boards won't help because servers contain other non-visual copies of the numbers. All the EPA needs is the number and it knows who bought the system (and who is accountable for its dumping.)
"I have heard of the EPA going to a large corporation and saying they found some PCs in a landfill that would cost $4 million to clean-up," said Brian Brundage, CEO of Chicago-based InterconRecycling.com, the third largest electronics recycling firm in the U.S. "The company cuts a check because it doesn't want the bad publicity."
Brundage's company recycles systems from government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. None of the material ends up in landfills but is recycled and reused.
Beyond liability concerns, there are environmental ones as well. Computer equipment contains many potentially toxic chemicals including lead, cadmium, mercury and even PCBs in some older models. Picture tubes of monitors can contain up to eight pounds of lead, which shields the user from radiation.
Some machines do contain gold and silver but reclaiming can cost more than the precious metals are worth, Brundage said. Even keeping them for parts isn't necessarily useful, as often the old machines are obsolete.
Instead of thinking of it as environmental recycling, think of reclaiming of computer material as resource conservation, said Holly Evans, director of environmental issues for Electronic Industries Alliance, a trade group for electronics manufacturers.
Brundage said reclaimed material means less metal to be mined.
"We also don't need to import materials in from other countries, " he said.
An old server at some point stops being an asset and actually becomes a liability for a firm. Companies that don't realize that change may balk at paying someone to cart off their old servers.
"A lot of people have trouble realizing the machine they spent thousands or even millions of dollars for isn't worth anything. It might even cost them money," said Technology Recycling CEO Bob Knowles, a Denver technology recycling company. "But they have to consider the amount of money the machine made for them over the years."
Knowles' firm charges about $150 to pick up a server and dispose of it properly. Disposal of a mainframe costs between $300 and $600, he said.
Disposing of machines allows users to take the machines off the business tax rolls, Knowles said. Privacy is also an issue.
Knowles points out the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which requires companies with private information on computers to take care of the information. Donating computers could accidentally give people access to sensitive data.
"The government mandates that you take care of data from cradle to grave. I am the grave," he added.