Due to the proliferation of information technology assets, many businesses today find themselves with piles of hardware stacked up in their buildings. Laptops, smartphones, PCs, and hard drives build up and up, as employees leave the company, receive upgrades, or simply when the devices reach end of life. Removing the data on these devices is critical to decrease the risk of the data being compromised or suffering a breach. Physical destruction can be seen as an adequate way to sanitize data but in most circumstances it’s not necessary as proper software sanitization can meet the same security requirements while recouping higher values from the asset by means of selling, donating or reusing the asset. However, many businesses continue to be handcuffed by company policy to physically destroy assets. This buildup of electronic waste (e-waste) often ends up in landfills, causing serious issues across the globe.

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E-waste refers to electronic equipment and its parts that have been discarded by the owner as waste without the intent of re-use. And while IT equipment makes up approximately a quarter of e-waste generated annually, the total problem includes everything from microwaves and dishwashers to lamps and bulbs.

For those considering throwing that old piece of tech in the trash heap, it’s crucial to not only consider the security implications of not sanitizing it properly, but its impact on the environment. According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017, the world generated 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste annually in 2016, which is the equivalent to 4,500 Eiffel Towers. Furthermore, the volume of e-waste is expected to increase to 52.2 million metric tons by 2021. In this future scenario, screens, monitors, TVs, desktop PCs, laptops, tablets and small IT equipment (mobile phones, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), pocket calculators) would make up nearly a quarter of that e-waste, or over 9 metric tons.

How did this happen?

There are several factors contributing to the increasing amount of e-waste. More and more people are now using technology – in fact, nearly half of the world’s population have internet access, according to Global E-waste Monitor 2017. As the technology around us continues to improve we see leaps of innovation, increased efficiencies and economic development. Which also means that more of us than ever can now afford to own more than one information and communication technology (ICT) device.

technology overload
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Mobile phones and computers become outdated quickly. With the astronomical costs associated with buying new devices these days, end-users tend to hold on to older devices longer, but there does come a point when the end-user will choose to buy a new device. Fortunately, the second hand mobile market presents many great opportunities for mobile providers and customers alike. Meanwhile, in many developing countries people are able to spend more on devices as incomes and middle-class populations rise. Add all of these factors together and it’s no surprise that the amount of e-waste is growing each year.

Businesses are not immune to this plight. As large consumers of ICT devices, they struggle with what to do with old equipment. Some organizations don’t know what to do with this stuff, so they hoard it. In fact, according to our recent report, two in five global organizations waste more than $100,000 a year storing useless IT hardware.

The global data center industry remains gripped by a lack of time and resources to complete comprehensive data privacy processes. This remains one of the key reasons why organizations, particularly those that own their own data centers and store all data onsite, are keeping IT assets past their useful lives.

Where do we go from here?

So, if we aren’t meant to hold onto it, what should we do? Destroying devices is not ideal, especially considering not only the environmental impact but also the increased challenges to recycle items properly. Companies struggle with changes in the recycling industry, which limits what we can do with our plastic nowadays.

The good news is that there are steps that a business can evaluate and potentially take to ensure that the organization is socially responsible and environmentally friendly with regards to recycling old drives and devices. With proper data erasure and sanitation, physical destruction and the asset disposal can be avoided. Some of these devices can be given a second life.

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Taking it one step further, device and hardware manufacturers should place greater emphasis on the total life cycle of the products they are designing, starting at the conceptual stage and all the way through to the end of life of the product. Sustainability begins at the innovation stage, and all stages should be considered from design, to use, to final disposal.

Customers, whether they be consumers or businesses, should consider recycling ICT devices to have the greatest impact – both on their bottom line and for the environment’s sake. Currently only 20% of e-waste generated is documented to be collected and recycled — approximately 1.7 Mt are thrown into the residual waste in higher-income countries annually and are likely to be incinerated or land-filled. Globally, only 8.9 metric tons of e-waste are documented to be collected and recycled. The fate of 76% (34.1 Mt) of e-waste is unknown so can be assumed to end up in the dump, traded, or recycled under inferior conditions.

Regardless of whether a business plans to dispose, recycle or reuse, it is vital that the correct level of care is taken to properly sanitize devices and technology of sensitive data. There is often confusion around the right methods of data erasure. Hardware users often think they have “cleaned” drives and devices before reselling or recycling but many methods do not successfully remove all data. It’s critical to securely erase any data on drives before passing them onto another party, using certified erasure methods with an audit trail to prove all data is truly gone. And by coupling data sanitization with the re-use and recycling of that old office equipment, businesses have an opportunity to play a role in safeguarding our environment from the growing e-waste issue that the world is facing.