Alan Bentley, from data erasure and circular economy specialist Blancco, writes
More than 53 million metric tonnes of e-waste was produced in 2019. This is simply not sustainable – and puts the fact that we need to change the way we dispose of electronic equipment into sharp focus.
Businesses are making a significant contribution to this growing problem, so it’s heartening to see the topic of digital pollution going through a revival. Sustainability has become an increasingly important factor in many organisations’ efforts to influence social change through corporate social responsibility (CSR) best practices. What’s more, we’re seeing environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues becoming more important to investors and shareholders as they evaluate businesses’ long-term performance and risk potential.
However, when we look under the covers, it seems that many enterprises today are not disposing of their IT equipment responsibly. Which is even more concerning when additional IT equipment purchased in response to the pandemic is factored in. Our recent study revealed that nearly all enterprises (97%) had to purchase additional devices, with 75% buying them brand new, to deal with the mass exodus from traditional offices into home working environments. This coincides with a national increase in demand of IT equipment, as remote working and schooling requires a well-equipped population. Parallel to this, it’s forced many to take drastic financial measures simply to survive, for example a recent survey of 200 UK-based businesses found that 60% have either decreased their investment in sustainability initiatives as a result of COVID-19, or are planning to do so.
The reactionary purchasing of additional IT equipment has sparked new e-waste fears, as enterprises collectively increase the volumes of devices they own. This mass of additional devices will eventually have to be dealt with, and hopefully in an environmentally friendly way, but are enterprises prepared?
A new environment creates new pressures
Concurrent to the COVID-19 pandemic are increasing concerns around climate change. With optimistic new net-zero carbon emission targets, digital pollution is high on boardroom agendas, and with governments turning the screws on businesses to be greener, there has never been more pressure to consider the impact of electronic waste. Wastefulness is an unfortunate biproduct of the IT industry, as new iterations of similar devices are constantly manufactured with little thought to the disposal of the devices they are usurping.
This is particularly pertinent to enterprises which have a financial incentive to supply their workforce with the latest technology. Combined with the catalyst of a global shift to remote working and purchasing of new IT equipment en masse, the severity of the issue is clear. Also, the diversion of e-waste from landfill could benefit society beyond environmental protection and help to bridge the digital divide. For example, in the UK thousands of used devices have been repurposed to supply schools struggling to accommodate their pupils remote learning. With sustainability pressures mounting, businesses have new impetus to responsibly dispose of old IT equipment. However, to achieve this there are certain considerations for IT departments which cannot be ignored.
The pandemic has forced enterprises to rethink how they dispose of devices that are no longer required. Tracking IT assets from purchase to end-of-life is crucial from a sustainability perspective. Although demonstrating corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a requirement of most organisations today, CSR and e-waste initiatives often struggle, due to lack of ownership both in policy communications and in policy implementation and compliance. A recent study explored current approaches to e-waste management and found that while 44 percent of enterprises did have an e-waste policy in place for end-of-life device management, it was not yet being communicated or implemented.
To achieve e-waste/CSR goals, there must be clear leadership in tracking exactly how many devices a business owns, which employees are using them, and most importantly how they are dealt with at end-of-life. It is vital that businesses make and understand the distinction between end-of-first-life hardware and non-functional, end-of-life hardware. This concludes whether a device can be repurposed and resold, or disposed of in an environmentally friendly way. Regardless, this tracking will keep unnecessary e-waste to a minimum. To ensure this process functions effectively, all devices must be tracked with an auditable trail.
Protecting the planet and people’s data
Extending the lifespan of devices is an excellent way to reduce e-waste and could even provide much essential IT equipment to those in need, especially during the pandemic. Devices that no longer have a business-use should be sent to an IT asset disposition (ITAD) vendor or environmentally friendly recycler. And in both cases, data security must be considered. Data security is a key factor, as many devices will store sensitive customer, employee or company data. Regardless of whether a device is being repurposed or disposed of, businesses must ensure all data has been sanitized properly.
Often devices are physically destroyed to mitigate data security risks, but at severe detriment to the environment as the remnants cannot be reused. This is simply not an option for businesses wanting to achieve sustainability targets. Data security can be maintained alongside the responsible disposal of devices. For example, the laptops for schools initiative helping to close the digital divide requires an integrated data erasure programme, to ensure all reused devices are securely sanitized of old data. In an effort to keep data secure, however, many businesses today are still opting for physical destruction or simply hoarding old IT equipment. If employees were better educated in data security and data sanitization methods, it would not only reduce e-waste, but could save money too.
So, what key elements should enterprises consider as part of their CSR policy to demonstrate responsible asset management and help tackle the rising tide of e-waste?
Firstly, any existing e-waste/CSR policies, including how to deal with old devices, have to be communicated effectively throughout the organisation. This goes hand in hand with data security, as tracking these devices and having staff aligned on protocol reduces the risk of human error, such as sensitive data being left on an old device unaccounted for. Secondly, when considering how to dispose of devices at end-of-life and how that fits in with enterprise e-waste/CSR policies, verifying that data sanitization is full and complete must be front of mind. Removing all data on an old device with an auditable trail not only protects your business, but it allows that device to be repurposed securely, reducing e-waste output. And finally, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, enterprises need to ensure their e-waste/CSR policies are updated and relevant to a remote working environment.
As the issue of protecting our planet becomes ever more important, businesses have a critical role to play. For businesses, the outcome of a more sustainable approach to e-waste is not only a healthier environment, but could save overheads, achieve CSR targets and even help to reduce the digital divide. Paying attention to the detail and setting out the right processes and procedures today, will help us all safeguard for the future.
The post Enterprises’ role in tackling the rising tide of e-waste first appeared on Envirotec.