IBM buys from its own supply of recycled electronics

IBM buys from its own supply of recycled electronics

As major electronics companies continue to be accused of planning obsolescence into products, an IBM program focused on making good use of that old e-waste has been thriving.

IBM’s Global Asset Recovery Services (GARS) can remanufacture just about any kind of IT equipment, regardless whether IBM made it. Since 1999, GARS has remanufactured and demanufactured nearly 68 million pounds of technology equipment.

Last year, the company's remanufacturing operations processed a quarter-million units of equipment. If you were to stack all the laptops IBM processed in 2012, they would reach 4.2 miles into the sky.

Of all the equipment and material that GARS has processed in its demanufacturing centers, over 99 percent was recycled or reused, making IBM a standout in a technology industry where companies have been charged with deliberately undermining the longevity of their products to force users to buy newer models sooner.

Designing against longevity

On the circuit board of a Samsung television set, for example, the condensers, sensitive to high temperatures, are soldered right next to a heat sink. "Why did Samsung put them here, even though there is room at the other end of the board?" asked Swiss repairman Felice Suglia in a recent interview with Worldcrunch.

Apple, meanwhile, is currently mired in a legal battle in Brazil over whether it intentionally withheld existing technology from its third-generation iPad so that it could release a newer model seven months later that consumers would feel pressured to buy.

"Consumers thought [they were] buying high-end equipment not knowing [it] was already an obsolete version," Brazilian Institute of Politics and Law Software attorney Sergio Palomares is quoted as saying.

Technology companies long have been charged with building obsolescence into their products, a practice that is not only ethically dubious but environmentally harmful. 

"From a sustainability perspective, planned obsolescence is deplorable because new resources are needed to make newer models, and more often than not, the old product materials aren't reused or recycled," wrote the Sustainable Business Forum's Kim Crane in a recent article. "These wasted materials end up polluting ecosystems and clogging up landfills."

While planned obsolescence may be common practice at the world’s biggest technology corporations, IBM's GARS program is aimed at both reusing old products and designing products that last longer and be better used at their end-of-life.

"We're continually looking and working with engineers on how to best design products that will enable us to keep upgrading and upgrading and upgrading," says John Muir, who leads the GARS sales team. "We're able to keep the technology as new as we possibly can, keep it as fresh as we possibly can, and to minimize the amount of waste."

Muir, a good-natured Scotsman who has been with IBM for almost 16 years, speaks with an enthusiasm for all things Big Blue that belies his soft-spoken manner. When we spoke, Muir had just flown in from South Africa, where he gave a talk to the entire GARS sales team. "The first thing I talked about ... was sustainability," he said.

Saving resources and money

GARS is part of IBM's Global Financing business, and the service is designed to help companies in need of a short-term technology solution or that lack the capital for expensive equipment to acquire IBM products that work like new. 

Enhancing the program’s sustainability benefits is the fact that many GARS clients use the money they save to deploy IBM's Big Data services, which have helped building managers cut energy usage and arid regions improve water efficiency.

While the company would not discuss specific instances of clients benefiting from GARS, IBM itself is a major beneficiary of the program.

The IBM Global Account, the group responsible for maintaining the company's internal applications, is a GARS client. Last year at IBM's Portsmouth Data Center in the United Kingdom, GARS supplied an upgraded storage system with approximately 50 percent more capacity that helped save money on floor space and electricity. 

That IBM uses the GARS program itself is evidence of the degree to which IBM’s engineering philosophy eschews planned obsolescence.

"GARS is utilized by the IBM Global Account due to product availability and cost," Julia Cheng, IBM spokesperson, said in an email. "Entrusting mission critical applications on GARS equipment is testimony to the quality and value that can be received clients who are looking for a cost effective alternative.”

For its sustainability efforts, last year IBM was recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the Climate Registry and the Association of Climate Change Officers for its organizational leadership in addressing climate change. The company also led the United States on Newsweek's 2012 Global Green Rankings.

“This is what you'll hear whenever we talk to clients,” Muir says. “We try to reinforce the message that this is sustainable, affordable and trusted.”

Image credit: CC license by Samuel Mann/Flickr