Sustainable Schools

Secondhand Is First-Rate

Don’t be deterred by the stigma of buying used. Refurbished computers can offer better value and performance than new units, while lessening IT’s environmental footprint.

Consider this: Before you press the power button on a brand-new computer for the first time, it has already used almost 80 percent of the energy it will consume over its lifetime.

Eric Williams, an assistant professor at the Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management at Arizona State University, has been researching life cycle assessments of IT machines since 2000. Life cycleassessments measure the total environmental impact of a product or service, from theresources used in its manufacturing to the energy consumed during its intended operation, and all the way through to the method of its disposal.

“If you do a life cycle assessment of an automobile,” Williams says, “what you’ll find is that 95 percent of the energy consumed will be from driving it. The other 5 percent will be in the manufacturing—the steel, the plastic, the different parts that need to be made and assembled. So gas mileage is going to be a huge factor in how environmentally friendly it is.”

Computers operate differently, Williams explains. They require a far more intensive process in the manufacturing stage. Part of this is due to the high-tech components and scrupulous environmental conditions required to build one. Anything that gets near semiconductors and microprocessor chips has to be immaculate. “It takes energy, chemicals, and processing to make the chemicals, gasses, and water that touch the unit that pure,” Williams says, “and to keep them that pure.

“If you’ve ever seen the Intel commercials where the workers are wearing clean suits and dancing around in a mock factory setting, you should know that those clean suits aren’t worn to protect the workers, but to protect the product from the workers.”

Williams says research shows that the care put into this manufacturing phase accounts for 70 to 80 percent of a computer’s energy use over its life cycle. “You could, like buying a car with better gas mileage, try to buy an Energy Star computer,” Williams says. “The problem is, that only addresses 20 to 30 percent of the computer’s energy consumption, and you haven’t done anything to address that larger 70 to 80 percent of consumption that occurs during manufacturing. If you take the strategy of extending the life of the computer—instead of buying a new computer, buy a used one—then you’ve eliminated the need to manufacture that new computer, at least for a while. The energy savings are significant.”

The idea of reusing a computer may bring to mind struggling with a dusty old Commodore 64 that’s bogged down by the previous user’s data. But that association no longer sticks. Saar Pikar, senior vice president and general manager of Ontario, Canada-based CDI Computers, one of the largest providers of refurbished computers to the education market, sold more than 300,000 refurbished computers to school districts in the US, Canada, and the UK in 2009 alone. “The computers that we sell are usually between six and 24 months old,” Pikar says. “They come from more than 250 sources—leasing brokers, original manufacturers, large Fortune 500 companies. They have a lot of life left in them.”

When a computer arrives at CDI, it is put through a 26-step process during which a team of certified technicians cleans the data from its hard drive, cleans the hardware,removes all stickers and identifying marks from the previous owner, and then tests and audits the unit. Any issues that arise areimmediately fixed, bringing the computer back up to its initial factory specifications. Once sold, the unit is returned to the assembly line, where the hardware is again cleaned and then upgraded to the specs requested by the customer—at an extra charge, Pikar says, only if those specs require more hardware.

“Most schools that work with us in the US give us a full software image of their existing computers,” Pikar says. “We load that image onto the new unit, so when they receive it they just have to plug it in and off they go.”

A district’s primary motivation is, of course, always budgetary, with any ecological benefits seen as a happy by-product. Tyler Krehbiel admits as much. But the quality of refurbished machines gave Krehbiel, the technology director for Sleepy Eye Public Schools in Sleepy Eye, MN, a practical reason to make an environmentally sound decision. He went with CDI last May, starting with a small order of 10 computers. After being impressed with their quality, he ordered an additional 52, to be distributed to teachers and computer labs in his district.

“I told them the specs I’d like the units to have, and that I’d like to spend around $300 for each of them,” he says. “They ended up finding me a much better machine than what I’d be able to buy anywhere else at that cost.” Krehbiel’s purchases included 40 unused Dell OptiPlex desktops and E-Series laptops that didn’t pass quality control at the manufacturer and were purchased by CDI to be spruced up and sold. The remainder were used IBM ThinkCentres.

“You’re getting a better machine,” Krehbiel says. “It has been more thoroughly tested than a brand-new machine, so your failure rate should be less. On top of that, we’ve found we can come in at the same price point that we’d normally pay for a new computer. It’s not cost savings, per se; it’s getting a much-higher-end computer for the same price you’d pay for a brand-new, lesser model.”

And that’s a refurbisher’s ultimate selling point: better value. With the numbers of low-cost new computers available today, dealers of refurbished units must excel in other areas of service to persuade consumers that reuse is the right option.

Green Disposal, Guaranteed

If you’re buying computers for your district—whether new or used—chances are you’ve got a stash of machines so old and obsolete that refurbishing can’t save them. Last fall, the Rhode Island Society of Technology Educators ( teamed with computerrefurbisher CDI Computers ( to hold an e-waste disposal day at theNorthern Rhode Island Collaborative (NRIC) in Lincoln, RI—one of many that CDI, one of 17 government-certified recyclers of electronic equipment in Ontario, Canada, regularly holds throughout the US. Thomas Rambacher, technology director of the NRIC, an educational services agency, oversaw the collection of more than 16,000 pounds of technology waste hauled in that day by area schools and districts.

“E-waste disposal is hard because you don’t always know where your materials are going to end up,” Rambacher says. He explains that each person who dropped off equipment received from CDI a certificate of “proper destruction,” which provides assurance that a computer will be recycled in an environmentally safe fashion. “We make sure it gets ground down to the actual raw materials [such as copper wire and computer chips], and then those raw materials get resold,” Rambacher says. “Nothing goes out of here and into a landfill.

“Schools came with equipment they’d had piled up in storage closets for 10 years because they were unsure of how to properly and securely dispose of it until we held this event. It was a great success.”

For more information on CDI’s e-waste disposal events, visit the organization’s website.

Thomas Rambacher was one who needed little convincing. Rambacher, the technology director of the Northern Rhode Island Collaborative, an educational services agency that serves special education students in its 11 member districts, recently populated NRIC classrooms with 30 refurbished Dell Optiplex 760 desktops from CDI. A committed environmentalist, he took the additional green step of purchasing 90 refurbished Dell monitors, spreading the use of those 30 computers to three times as many student workstations with the aid of NComputing’s virtualization software. Rambacher has calculated that virtualization will bear about $650 in annual savings in electricity costs.

The decision to buy the Dells was an easy one, he says. “If people aren’t careful when purchasing these ‘cheap’ brand-new computers, they’ll end up with an introductory model that’s not suited for the type of environment that you find in education. When you buy refurbished, you’re getting a better class of machine, you’re getting better specs, and in some cases you’re even getting better warranties. CDI offered a minimum three-year warranty on all of its systems; that’s unheard of when purchasing from most vendors.”

CDI offers such comprehensive warranties and customer service because it understands the stigma attached to buying used. “‘Recertified computers’ sounds like ‘used cars,’ Pikar says. “It doesn’t sound good. But we’ve done business now with more than 3,000 districts in the United States. All of them are getting the levels of performance that they’d get from brand-new equipment for half, or even a third, of the price.” And whether they intended to or not, districts are making a meaningful ecological contribution by reusing old machines.

“If we weren’t doing what we’re doing, most of them would simply be sent to storage, where they’d eventually become obsolete,” Pikar says. “Every computer we sell saves it from being sent to a landfill.”


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This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of THE Journal.