UI Surplus keeps items from ending up in landfill

BY SAM LANE | DECEMBER 16, 2009 7:30 AM

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On a given day, UI Surplus is packed with customers who rummage through the warehouse’s shelves of old Rolodexes, weathered desks, and hard drives.

“When people come in asking me what’s new here, I say, ‘Nothing. Everything’s used,’ ” manager Steve Stange joked, looking out at the crowded room.

UI Surplus is widely known for selling computers and other electronics formerly used by UI departments. However, with developments in hardware and a tightening university budget, employees at UI Surplus are seeing fewer old computers, Stange said.

University Surplus is the primary source for any unused university equipment. The department employs roughly 20 workers, including 12 students.

When a member of a UI department has a computer — or any other piece of equipment — he or she no longer uses, Surplus is usually the first destination. But the release of Windows 7, which is compatible with older computers, has some machines in use longer than expected, Stange said. And with universitywide budget cuts, some departments are holding onto electronics longer.

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Amid this slight decline, however, Stange noted that the department’s services remain integral to the university’s and UI Hospitals and Clinics’ impact on the environment. Its electronic recycling process is complex and thorough.

When Surplus receives a computer from the UIHC, Stange said, its hard drive comes without any data from the previous owner. Still, Surplus employees wipe the hard drive again to ensure that no information exists and put it up for sale.

The department has a unique process of dealing with the resulting profit.

If the item sells for fewer than $100, Surplus keeps the money, most of which goes to pay employees. But if an item garners between $100 and $500, the profit is split between Surplus and the department from which the item came. Items that bring in more than $500 are on a tiered system, giving more back to the originating UI department as value increases.

If Surplus is unable to sell an item, it has a few options.

One is donating it to the WiderNet project, a 9-year-old initiative that sends computers to developing countries.

“Our goal is an educational goal,” said Karen Chappell, a program administrator at WiderNet. “We are trying to get information out to areas where there is no Internet or the Internet is way too expensive.”

Various items from the UIHC may find a home at the facility’s Medical Museum. The museum, established in 1988, displays medical instruments and devices used more than 100 years ago.

“I think the historical value is very important,” said Adrienne Drapkin, the director of the museum. “I think it’s important for everyone to see how medicine has evolved and see what medicine once was.”

The UI Surplus staff members continue to pick up unused items from across campus and bring them back to their warehouse on South Gilbert Street.

“It’s a good-sized undertaking,” Stange said. “I’m not exaggerating: There are tons and tons of items that would be going into a landfill weekly.”

Everyone at Surplus finds value in the items they collect to resell.

“We’re doing our part to help the Earth,” Stange said. “Landfills don’t pay.”

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