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eWaste is the hidden scandal of the IT and data world

eWaste

eWaste is the elephant in the server room when it comes to IT asset disposal, sustainability and recycling for the circular economy.

Only 28 per cent of companies consider IT asset disposal a key part of their sustainability strategy, according to an Uptime Institute survey. 92 per cent of eWaste and IT equipment in America is not being monitored in terms of its lifecycle and recycling. Only eight per cent of IT is accounted for in the USA compared to 42 per cent in Europe.  So today, 92 per cent of IT equipment in America is not being monitored in terms of its lifecycle and recycling.

Research shows it takes 190,000 litres of water to manufacture a single PC, with 85 per cent of the carbon overhead generated during manufacture. This means that most businesses don’t.

And the ‘knock on’ effect is that they really have no idea how their equipment is actually dealt with and where components end up given there are so many third parties involved in the so-called ‘IT chain of custody’.  The result is that numerous firms have been inadvertently illegally dumping their IT eWaste, especially if an approved and accredited IT Asset Disposal (ITAD) provider is not used.  It’s a bigger problem than many people realise.

There are around 750 companies in the UK alone who purport to offer secure IT disposal, however, just under 20 have invested enough to get the top ADISA certification, of which standard 8.0 is the highest. 

The IT Asset Disposal industry is huge and projected to be worth around $30 billion annually by 2030. Most companies in the sector are focused on two things: generating profit and providing data security to customers and there are few players who have truly embraced the eWaste circular economy.

For years, the developed world has been using low income developing nations as a dumping ground for IT under the guise of charitable donations. There has been a false belief in the west that doing so solves many problems: we get rid of the old technology and developing nations get a leg up to access IT.  It doesn’t work.  Millions of tons of IT waste is generated each year and the ‘west’ has created toxic places on earth because of this.

Indeed, some 998 million children globally still suffer from the digital divide. They just don’t have access to secure and usable IT equipment which self-evidently would help them boost their earning potential and enable themselves – and their communities – to get out of poverty, in what is an ever increasing digital world.

 “The problem of data security hasn’t been addressed properly when it comes to giving away, retiring or recycling equipment,” Nathaniel Comer, founder of Sun Screen IT, said. “Morgan Stanley Smith Barney was recently fined $35m by the SEC for failing to wipe customer data from around 4,900 servers and hard drives, as equipment was replaced.  If a bank the size of Morgan Stanley can get it so wrong with all its strict governance structures then what hope for a SME with 500 staff?”

Practical steps to reducing eWaste

Ensure that the ITAD selected has the right up-to-date certifications.  They should be ADISA accredited with standard 8.0 – it’s incredibly strict – along with R2, e-Stewards and ISO 140001 and ISO 270001.

Avoid obvious ‘red flags’.  Any firm claiming to collect and recycle IT for free is either going bust or not meeting the above standards.

View IT as a resource not waste. Many organisations don’t.  If it is seen as a resource, it can be collected, ethically refurbished and recycled, and put back into the circular economy. In fact, it can be monetised to generate (some) revenue for the company, too.

Large companies must have a sensible global outlook given pervasive international standards aren’t there yet and there is huge dissonance in local laws.  For example, there is limited point in a US firm selecting the lowest cost provider for off-shore ITAD – and feeling happy they have done enough – if the local firm then doesn’t recycle to US or EU/UK standards. That gratuitously and immorally passes the environmental buck elsewhere.  Close attention to detail must be paid to the whole IT recycling chain.

Recognise that whilst businesses have a responsibility to properly consume and dispose of corporate owned IT, so do individuals,. 

“Most people have an old laptop or two and various phones sitting in draws and cupboards at home,” Comer concluded. “Sun Screen IT runs a program called the ‘Urban Mine’ where employees of client firms can bring in their old devices and have the data securely wiped and the unit properly disposed of and recycled by the corporate ITAD. It’s a bit like an IT amnesty, with Sun Screen IT estimating that there’s about $65m worth of recyclable metal salvageable from initiatives like this.”

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