The Tape Recycling Process

What You Should Look For When Buying Or Selling Used Tapes

Buying recycled tapes, and selling tapes to a qualified recycler, can save a company considerable money. But it pays to check the recycling process that the vendor uses, as a shoddy process can compromise the security of the data on the tapes and leave purchasers with a poor quality tape and, possibly, lost data.

“There is not a standard industry process,” says Brian Musil, founder and senior acquisitions manager at (877/798-2737; “Not all recycling companies are created equal.”

The recycled tape business has grown slowly but steadily over the past few years as the need for archiving has grown and as newer tape technologies are introduced by manufacturers, driving still usable but older-generation tapes, such as LTO 2 formats, into the secondary market.

“We are getting more calls for recycled tape over new, and customers are realizing that when they’re purchasing from a reputable supplier with good certification standards, that the media is often better than new,” Musil says, noting that people can save 20 to 50% off the price of a new tape if they’re willing to go with slightly older tape technologies (e.g., LTO 2 and 3) that the recyclers get.

For companies selling their tapes, the return can range from nominal to significant, depending on the volume of tapes. Musil relates purchases he’s made recently, ranging from $625 for 125 used SLR100 tapes and $750 for 75 used LTO 3s, to $63,000 for 7,000 used AIT1 tapes. Additional savings may be factored in based on how much a company would have had to pay to have the tapes destroyed.

Key Steps In The Recycling Process

So what should a credible recycling process include? According to Musil, a good recycling process should include a thorough inventory of the tapes by serial number, a physical inspection to check for defects in the case and tape, and thorough data erasure—either by writing over the tape or by degaussing or magnetizing the tape. Customers selling tapes should also ask for a chain-of-custody document to show who handled the tapes. also uses an RFID scanner that reads the RFID code on each tape and provides a history of use. “It can tell you how much data has been written to it, how many times it’s been in the drive, and if there are errors on it,” says Musil.

The company tests each tape for errors by writing a bit pattern of ones and zeroes on the tape and then logs errors. The tapes that pass are cleaned and stamped with a data code and certification mark.

Based on the physical inspection and error rates, grades tapes as A, B, and C grade—or no grade if they’re unusable. The company sells only the A and B tapes. However, Musil notes that the C-grade tapes—those with some errors and/or physical damage—are sometimes sold to other used tape distributors that accept lower-grade tapes. Those tapes could be sold in retail outlets, possibly without any indication to the buyer as to their quality level.

Not All Recyclers Pass Muster

Determining the true quality of a product is one major problem that buyers of used storage media face. Tapes purchased directly from the vendor who did the recycling, and from a vendor that can provide a verification of the process and the tests done, are more likely to be good. Musil claims the failure rate on his tapes are less than most new ones. But recycled tapes bought through one or more layers of distributors and retailers may be from multiple, unknown vendors and repackaged in ways that hide their age and defects.

Christopher Caprio, VAR/systems integrator channel sales manager at Imation (, says few customers know what really happens to their tapes after they send them to a recycler. Imation conducted an audit of recycled tapes in 2008 that found customer data still on many of them, even on those that had been degaussed. In a few cases, the data was in identifiable chunks, such as Social Security and credit card numbers.

Enterprises, whether buying or selling used tape media, need to thoroughly vet the company they’re selling to or buying from. As a buyer, make sure you find out as much as you can about the history of the tapes. As a seller, ensure you know exactly how the recycler is erasing data from your tapes and that the recycler can provide a chain-of-custody document.

Musil and Caprio both agree that data and tape destruction may be the best course for highly sensitive data such as customer credit card records or patient medical data. “There are some industries, like financial, that won’t do recycling. They have their tapes destroyed,” Caprio says.

In addition to dealing directly with a reputable tape recycler, there is another way to ensure that the tapes you’re recycling or reusing are credibly handled: Reuse your own tapes. Robert Amatruda, a storage analyst at IDC, notes that reusing your own tapes makes economic sense, especially on the high end of the enterprise storage market.

“There’s been quite a bit of investment into hardware that allows for a customer to reuse their own tape media, which solves a lot of problems,” says Amatruda. “That’s the whole value proposition of this stuff, and that’s where Sun and IBM, with their new tape products, I think they’re a good bet with large customers that use tape. Media reuse is one of the strong value propositions of these products.”

Written by Sue Hildreth