Jun 30 2023

In Device Lifecycle Management, eCycling Is the Last Stop

As many one-to-one devices deployed for students during the pandemic reach end of life, it’s important for K–12 IT leaders to consider how to decommission them sustainably.

Even before the pandemic forced the shutdown of in-person schooling around the nation, K–12 districts were beginning to explore — and in many cases implement — one-to-one device programs for their students. Once COVID-19 reached the U.S., those programs quickly evolved from what seemed like a luxury to a necessity.

As an estimated 77 percent of public schools around the nation switched to remote learning, manufacturers struggled to keep pace with demand. On average, devices procured for education settings have an average lifespan of about three to five years, depending on the device type and how they’re used.   

That means that today, many of the devices acquired for remote learning are now reaching the end of their anticipated lifecycle. This leaves schools to decide not only how to replace them, but also what to do with the devices they’re decommissioning. Of course, the right answer depends on the level of usage and potential damage. Some devices might be salvageable or viable for resale. However, for those that can’t be saved, some schools are considering electronics recycling, or eCycling — the last stop for outdated devices and an important final step in the device lifespan.

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Understanding What eCycling Is, and What It Isn’t

It’s not uncommon for people to conflate the concept of recycling with the ideas of reusing or refurbishing items. They’re actually very different processes with equally different outcomes. In the realm of device lifecycle management, it’s important that schools understand the differences — particularly the distinction between recycling electronic waste and refurbishing or reusing it.

While the devices in question no longer meet educational needs or requirements, they might still be useful for other users. In such cases, a district’s best option might actually be reselling the devices, which can then be refurbished and resold.

However, eCycling is something else entirely: “eCycling is the process of extracting valuable materials from these devices, so that they can be reused in new things, whether it be new electronics or other goods,” says Steve Schuldt, a business development executive at RePower, a company that helps organizations determine what to do with old tech devices and facilitates the process of refurbishing, reselling or recycling them.

Ultimately, Schuldt explains, eCycling will always be better than tossing a device in the trash. However, to get the maximum value out of a school’s technology investments and to avoid unnecessary waste, he says, eCycling should also be the last step in the device lifespan.

DOWNLOAD THE INFOGRAPHIC: Manage all stages of the device lifecycle.

Putting eCycling into Practice at K–12 Schools

To anyone who’s ever witnessed a child using a tablet on an airplane or at a restaurant, it comes as no surprise that young users and device damage go hand-in-hand. Broken screens, stickers, unidentified sticky substances and bed bugs are just a few types of damage witnessed by Josh Kovacich, IT director at Buffalo Public Schools. Kovacich previously worked with the Niagara Falls School District when it was first issuing laptops to students. “It was a learning experience,” he recalls. “There was a lot of damage in the first year at that time.”

In Buffalo, the district had already developed and implemented its one-to-one device program when the pandemic hit, forcing the district to expand and fast-track the program, Kovacich says. Now, with devices initially purchased in 2020 gradually approaching end of life, the district is working to develop its overarching device lifecycle strategy, including whether and when it’s time to consider disposing of outdated devices.

Steve Schuldt
Repairing and reusing them will always be better. If things can get a new life, it’s always better for the environment and for the school.”

Steve Schuldt Business Development Executive, RePower

For many schools, one of the biggest draws for electronic recycling is simply the need to free up space, to eliminate both clutter and potential security risks. “We have limited facility space,” Kovacich says. “It can be a project just finding somewhere to fit them all and secure them.”

Indeed, security plays a significant role in determining where and how to store electronics. “There have been times we couldn’t use spaces that were available because they were in an insecure neighborhood. We’ve had situations where buildings were vandalized or broken into, and devices were stolen.”

Another security concern is the data previously housed on those devices, which must also be secured, Schuldt says. “If you’re not careful about how you do this and how you manage it, you could run into all kinds of problems.”

KEEP READING: Schools need internal and external partnerships for cybersecurity.

Most schools work with an outside vendor that has experience in safely and securely disposing of electronic waste. When choosing an eCycling or resale vendor, Schuldt says, it’s critical to ensure the vendor’s practices comply with state regulations, which vary across the country. Schuldt suggests finding a vendor whose processes comply with California state regulations —the most restrictive in the country — to ensure the disposal process meets requirements. “If you know a supplier follows California rules, you’re probably going to be in good shape,” he says.

Deciding Whether to Reuse, Refurbish or Recycle K–12 Devices

When it comes to electronic waste disposal, there’s a significant difference between throwing out an old spiral-bound notebook versus a tablet or laptop. While the most valuable thing in the notebook might be old study notes or homework, that electronic device contains a wide range of materials that need to be responsibly stripped from it to ensure safe and responsible disposal. This includes various types of plastics, precious and semi-precious metals such as copper, tungsten, iron, steel and lithium, and hazardous materials like lead and mercury.

Disposing of electronic waste — commonly referred to as e-waste — is a complicated and harsh process, Schuldt explains. “It is as brutal and rough as it sounds. The device gets shredded into millions of pieces, and then a customized machine picks out metals and plastics that can be used as raw materials for new devices.”

Ultimately, those materials can be reused to manufacture a range of other products, including new electronic devices. And between a constant influx of new devices being introduced to market and the ever-declining lifespan of the average electronic device, demand for those materials remains strong.

Schuldt notes that eCycling is not always the ideal first choice when the time comes for schools to retire their aging one-to-one devices. Still, much of what’s stripped from recycled devices ultimately winds up in a landfill or incinerated, subsequently introducing those chemicals back into the atmosphere, ground and water. “Only when a device gets to the very end of its life, and we’ve basically exhausted all the ways to use it, does it go to recycling. It’s typically our last choice with the devices we receive from schools,” Schuldt explains. “Repairing and reusing them will always be better. If things can get a new life, it’s always better for the environment and for the school.”

UP NEXT: Envision new life for devices as the refresh cycle approaches.

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