The difficulty of throwing things away

May 18, 2007

One of the interesting issues of working at a university is that it's amazingly hard to throw obsolete equipment away. Which, in its own way, illustrates how universities are peculiar places, since in a company you can at least theoretically get rid of things by throwing them in a dumpster.

Part of the problem is just that relatively scarce money causes people to reflexively cling to working (or theoretically working) equipment long past its best before date. Even when something's not working, when you are babying other computers along you tend to keep as big a spares pool as you can manage, just in case.

(We certainly do this here, and every so often we wind up actually raiding old hardware for bits. Just last week we stole some old combo FC and fibre gigabit Ethernet cards from our old SPARC fileservers so we could move our IMAP server up to gigabit Ethernet, which is only slightly more modern. As you might imagine, an IMAP server that gets all of the mail over NFS is much happier on gigabit Ethernet than it is on 100 Mbit Ethernet.)

However, the core problem is that many things in a typical university were bought with someone else's money; sometimes just government money directly, and sometimes grant funding. Both sources of funding are pretty careful (or neurotic, depending on your perspective) about making sure that you do not buy something on their dime, barely use it for a year, and then pass it to your buddy at a dirt cheap price. Thus, equipment disposal is a huge pain that requires piles of forms and procedures, and most of the pain is externally imposed and thus not something the university can ever do anything about.

(For bonus fun, try to figure out what funding source paid for an ancient piece of equipment that you now want to get rid of, as different funding sources often have different disposal rules.)

The effect is predictable: when it is a huge pain to throw equipment away, people don't. Even when it's broken, it's less of a pain to stick it in a corner than it is to dispose of it properly. And the result of this is a huge clutter of ancient, obsolete, and broken equipment, stuffed into any available corner and kept because people aren't sure if it's still needed or how to dispose of it.

(If you dispose of it but not properly, sooner or later the auditors get you. This is apparently reasonably uncomfortable.)

Unfortunately, we have a lot of corners around here. The result is probably fascinating to a hardware archaelogist, but I'm not one.

The whole situation is a bit sad. We've almost certainly got a number of old machines that various worthy causes could put to good use, but getting to where we could give the machines away takes so much work that no one can afford to do it. And at one point we worked out that trying to sell some hardware we didn't need any more to a used computer broker would actually cost more money than the university could possibly recoup, so of course we sat on the machines until they were completely useless.

(This entry was prompted by recent attempts to clean up our area and maybe finally get rid of some very dead and broken hardware.)

Written on 18 May 2007.
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Last modified: Fri May 18 14:31:08 2007
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