The World Economic Forum predicts the amount of e-waste will more than double by 2050 to 120 million metric tons annually. Organizations that put in place environmentally friendly IT disposal practices now can greatly affect whether e-waste helps or harms the environment—and whether or not they will reap the business benefits.
In 2019, the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit, fires in the Amazon rainforest, and dramatic, cross-continental protests by the activist group Extinction Rebellion heightened global concern about climate change. Against this backdrop, socially conscious consumers and other stakeholders are paying more attention to the way technology-dependent organizations address their stewardship of natural resources—both in their corporate social responsibility policies (CSR), and in practice.
For example, the London Stock Exchange now recognizes companies with sustainable business models. Its “Green Economy Mark” accreditation informs investors who are increasingly interested in backing companies producing environmentally beneficial products and services.
Many companies adopt CSR policies (or environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria) to guide eco-friendly practices and demonstrate awareness of the social, environmental and economic impact of their operations. Despite this, many businesses have room for improvement when it comes to environmental sustainability, including how they treat their used PCs, servers, laptops and other enterprise data storage devices.
The E-waste Graveyard: Harm to People and the Environment
Approximately 350,000 metric tons (tonnes) of e-waste leaves Europe illegally each year. This waste finds itself in some of the world’s poorest areas. An investigative report by media company France 24 revealed the shocking results in Ghana: Adults and children alike risk physical harm and toxic fumes for hours in waste yards. Daily, they break down or burn old computers, electronic devices, components and wires to salvage and sell the metal that remains. They do all this while levels of contamination from dangerous metals can be 100 times higher than recognized safety thresholds.
On the other side of the pond, the United States is one of the world’s largest producers of e-waste. The United Nations estimates that more than three-quarters of that is incinerated or ends up in landfills, with less than 25 percent of the country’s old electronics being recycled.
Physical Destruction of IT Assets: More Harm than Good
If organizations are to resolve these growing environmental issues, then they must implement and communicate CSR policies across the business, specifically addressing responsible e-waste disposal. This includes determining how IT hardware, from the largest servers to the smallest flash drives, is processed when it reaches the end of its lifecycle.
Many organizations dispose of decommissioned hardware by shredding or crushing the equipment to ensure stored data is irretrievable. They do this (in part) to comply with data protection mandates such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). But the ongoing use of these methods is also due to a lack of education on alternatives, unawareness of the security risks involved with relying solely on physical destruction, as well as lack of understanding about the environmental impact of physical destruction.
In our research report, Poor Sustainability Practices: Enterprises are Overlooking the E-waste Problem, exploring organizations’ approach to data sanitization, we found that surveyed enterprises collectively destroy hundreds of thousands of data storage items per year. Additionally, over a third of organizations physically destroy nonfunctional or end-of-life equipment because they believe it is “better for the environment.”
The reality is that end-of-life drives and computers can often have their life extended if sanitized properly. Non-functional equipment can provide opportunities to responsibly harvest rare earth elements, precious metals and other natural resources for use in other electronics—an intensifying need as society’s appetite for newer, flashier devices ceases to be satisfied.
By changing their approach to IT disposal, organizations can not only benefit the environment, but they can unlock the immense business value of e-waste.
The Circular Economy: An E-waste Opportunity
Our study also found that, similar to the UN findings for the United States, only a quarter of end-of-life equipment is being recycled. This is astounding when you consider that the material value alone of yearly e-waste amounts to $62.5 billion. In fact, there is more gold in a metric ton of mobile phones then there is in a metric ton of gold ore, say the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the UN E-waste Coalition. The process of mining these precious metals, which continue to grow in scarcity, also causes significant damage to the environment.