Where corporate America’s old phones and computers go to die

CyberCrunch is totally bent on destruction.

Its two plants, in Aston and out west in Greensburg, Pa., are places where familiar electronics from Philadelphia’s biggest employers go to die.

More precisely, to be shredded into high-tech confetti that data thieves can’t pillage, then sold to recyclers.

The more digitized and data-dependent our working lives become, the more “everyone ends up with equipment they will have to dispose of,” noted Joe Connors, head of business development at Aston-based CyberCrunch.

Electronics recycling has a history of rising and falling with precious-metals prices. But Connors said his company has built new shredders — such as one it calls the Cyber 10G Pulverizer — in a bet that working-from-home, the Internet of Things, smartphones that communicate directly with remote “cloud” servers, and other trends will boost demand for years to come.

As computers and phones have gotten faster, smarter, smaller, and ubiquitous — and as laws such as HIPAA , for medical privacy, and Gramm-Leach-Bliley, for accounting, spawn policies mandating privacy protections — employers have had to ensure that their destroyers can break ever-more-efficient equipment into ever-smaller pieces.

Penn and Jefferson, Comcast and DuPont, Clarivate and Sungard and other firms that rely on hand-held and laptop communications and data access — as well as digital-tech-dependent retailers such as the 900 Wawa stores — need places to dispose of old devices and any traces of private or proprietary data.

That’s where CyberCrunch, with its 25 employees at a newly enlarged 45,000-square-foot facility in Aston and at a 45,000-square-foot center with larger machines in Greensburg, find cash in sophisticated trash.

It’s not a big-dollar business — companies pay as little as $4,000 a year for the service, and the firm’s revenues totaled less than $5 million last year.

But it has grown since state-backed Ben Franklin Technology Partners and other investors pumped in an initial $325,000 five years ago, when the company changed its name from Commonwealth Computer Recycling.

Private investors have paid to help cofounder Serdar Bankaci, a data scientist based at the company’s Greensburg plant in Western Pennsylvania, to develop and build new machines.

His colleagues said Bankaci is famous in the industry for hearing the year and model of a piece of equipment — mainframe, PC, phone — and instantly reporting back the current value of its components on the ever-changing spot markets: “Trash this, trash that, that’s worth $2, that’s worth $50,” quoted Connors, mimicking the boss.

For some clients, “CyberCrunch takes out the wires, certain memory cards, and metals — they charge us by the pound but they include [calculations] for the gold, platinum, aluminum they recover,” which the company will strip and re-sell, said Joe Boccella, senior technical support engineer at Sungard Availability Services in Wayne. Sungard helps corporate clients plan computer use and backups to keep systems reliable.

Electronics scrapping has evolved, said Boccella, from the “mainframe” computer days, when companies ran IBM or Unisys machines in-house. “All the connecters were gold,” and owners would remove and sell those bits, and remove memory chips to pass them between magnets to wipe out sensitive data, before sending the “heavy iron” to the junkyard, Boccella recalled.

But machines have gotten more complex, with data lingering in surprising nodes: “You can no longer pass a magnet over a hard drive, and think you’re safe,” Boccella warned. “Magnetize it, reformat it, but they can still pull out old data. You have to have it ground into pieces.”

Especially at the end of each year, when new corporate equipment at such vendors as Sungard tends to replace the obsolete. “Three days before Christmas, CyberCrunch took out three major box trucks of hardware,” Boccella said. “They can’t re-use our hardware. They need to take our name off, the serial numbers, and make sure it dissolves.”

There are even some Sungard clients that continued to use magnetic tapes for years after most companies began relying on remote servers. That’s not because they can’t afford the “cloud” of distant servers such as Amazon Web Services or its rivals from Google or specialty operators such as Philadelphia-based Linode. Rather, it’s because they considered old technology that was isolated from the Internet to be safer.

But, mostly, today’s data business is subject to relentless device upgrades to keep it current with network, volume, speed, and security needs. For desktops, laptops and phones, the standard is a three-year cycle. “We have a lot of equipment for our clients — every flavor of computer system from mainframes down, every brand from IBM to Hitachi to EMC — that we have to destroy,” said Boccella. ”We rotate our hardware. We have a lot of hard drives. We need a good distributor to trash them.”

Sungard also does some of its own smashing and shredding. So Boccella checks prices, and contracts out the work if a contractor such as CyberCrunch can do it more efficiently. Old insulators with polychlorinated biphenyls(PCBs) and other caustic or toxic chemicals, carelessly disposed, “can get you in trouble with the EPA,” he warned. “A vendor like CyberCrunch has all the credentials; it makes them an easy choice for those jobs.”

Philadelphia, once a center of innovative manufacturing, is now an important recycling center, located in the middle of the East Coast megalopolis, convenient to rails and highways linking to the Midwest and inland South. CyberCrunch sells data-free scrap to specialized recyclers such as Revolution Recovery, Camden Iron & Metal, and Burns & Co., which can recycle entire buildings.

When big companies such as DuPont downsize in mergers, the office clean-outs can yield tons of specialized tools with valuable components. Last summer, “they delivered to us a nuclear electron microscope. Two thousand pounds, and none of it goes to a landfill. We separate the parts and send them to our downstream” recyclers, Connors said.

“Who gets sent to destroy data” at a large company or nonprofit hospital? asked Al Paoletti, who handles large corporate accounts for CyberCrunch. “The guy lowest on the totem pole. Maybe the intern. They are overworked, so many institutions have cut staff dramatically. So we come in where they have left off, we check their work and identify the problem” and cut deals. He said an international push picked up clients in 15 countries last year.

But revenue accrues in modest increments. Shredded electronics, precious metals aside, is lately worth “26 cents a pound,” Connors noted.

An accountant by training, he called electronic scrapping “belt and suspenders” work, requiring several layers of careful checking — but it’s also “a lot more fun” than pure numbers-crunching, he added, as he prepared to drive to a PayPal facility to pick up computers for smashing.

“We never know what we’re going to pick up in a given load,” Conners concluded. “It’s like Christmas every day.”

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