Expert Viewpoint

Got Chromebooks? First Steps to Securely and Sustainably Reusing and Recycling School Devices

During the pandemic, technology created opportunities to take classes online and keep teachers and students connected. One of the most frequently leveraged assets in the distance learning environment has been the Google Chromebook.

The sale of Chromebooks skyrocketed during the height of the pandemic, with 275% YoY growth in Q1 2021, according to analysts at Canalys. Broader access to these low-cost, web-ready laptops has been a lifesaver for educators, and now, as schools have returned to in-person instruction, the demand for Chromebooks at schools has plummeted — and in some cases, administrators are stuck with more devices than they need.

While some of these devices are still enjoying heavy use in classrooms, many are being stored at home or in school storage rooms, taking up space and collecting dust. Holding on to student devices in unsecured spaces is a ticking bomb that can pose potential security risks to schools and students due to the Personally Identifiable Information the devices hold. And discarding perfectly usable equipment — instead of reusing, recycling, or donating the devices — is problematic from a sustainability perspective.

The question for school administrators and their IT teams is how to make the most out of their investment in Chromebooks with security and sustainability in mind. Following are key steps to consider when revising IT equipment policies to address used and end-of-life devices, including Chromebooks, in the education sector:

1) Take Device Destruction Off the Table

Device destruction for security’s sake can often be avoided. The reality of device destruction is that device components compound a growing e-waste crisis.

According to the World Economic Forum, e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, with over 53 megatons of e-waste dumped annually. Only 17% of e-waste is collected and documented. In addition to the missed opportunity to give new life to unused equipment, e-waste has a serious environmental and health impact, as it exposes workers to toxic metals and harmful chemicals (such as mercury, BFR, and CFS). It’s no wonder the UN has set a target to increase e-waste recycling to 30% by 2023.

The reuse and recycling of IT equipment, instead of destroying it, plays an important part in achieving ESG and sustainability objectives globally.

The bottom line: If the device is less than a few years old and could be securely sanitized and reused, it’s a far more sustainable option.

2) Outsource the Process of ‘Sanitizing’ Devices for Recycling and Reuse

If destruction is off the table, schools must address the changing of hands of student devices in other ways that ensure data security best practices. To recycle assets, for example, administrators and their IT personnel must ensure compliance with data security standards. Not adequately erasing the data stored on devices can still leave them vulnerable to data breaches and information theft because simply wiping the drives clean doesn’t erase all of the information on the device.

Data sanitization begins with the more secure process of cryptographic erasure of all user data, including settings, apps, files, etc., which renders the data unrecoverable. Many schools work with external technology partners or services, such as IT Asset Disposition service providers, who are skilled at secure cryptographic erasure, to sanitize devices and prepare them for recycling or reuse.

Utilizing these experienced partners, K–12 school administrators and IT staff can contribute to the circular economy in managing the glut of Chromebooks, thereby decreasing the number of devices that are landfill-bound.

Putting a process in place with qualified technology partners to automate this erasure of data minimizes operating costs by reducing the time for device processing to minutes. This in turn also allows those technology partners to prepare more devices for reuse in less time, and they can more quickly determine which devices need to be set aside for component and material recycling.

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About the Author

Russ Ernst is chief technology officer at Blancco, where he is responsible for defining, driving and executing product strategy across the company’s data erasure and mobile diagnostics product suites.