Why your old enterprise hardware is bad for business

53 million metric tons of e-waste was produced in 2019, more than the total number of commercial aircraft ever built. But how much was disposed of sustainably and securely?
17 November 2020

Hardware needs to be disposed of sustainably and securely. Source: Shutterstock

The business technology world has a growing sustainability problem, and it’s more aware of it than ever. The services we rely upon — from cloud computing solutions to data-heavy machine learning applications — require vast amounts of energy, not only to power computations in the data center but to keep those footfall-field-sized facilities as cool and efficient as possible.

To put a number on it, Swedish researcher Anders Andrae expects that the storage of digital data will account for 14% of the world’s emissions by 2040.

Large corporations are leading the way in the right direction, though. Realizing sustainability as a key differentiator, the likes of Microsoft, Apple, and Google are committing to ambitious carbon-neutral or -zero initiatives, which will have a trickle-down effect on smaller players within the next several years.

The E-waste problem

While our distributed workplaces of today have a smaller physical footprint than ever before, there’s an issue that’s easier to overlook: that of surplus hardware.

In a report of 600 enterprise decision-makers from businesses of 5,000 staff or more entitled The Rising Tide of E-Waste, data security company blancco revealed how shifting work patterns could bring a deluge of digital detritus, posing a serious potential impact digital not just on the environment, but on business security too.

Nearly all enterprises (97%) have been forced to refresh their hardware this year. Some 78% of those in the study agreed their businesses had made short term investment in technology.

All this results in mountains of e-waste comprising computers, servers, hard drives, mobile phones, cables, and more. According to the report, more than 53 million metric tons of e-waste was produced in 2019, more than the total number of commercial aircraft ever built.

The effects of compressing years of digital transformation into just a few months have exacerbated the problem. To facilitate the switch to remote working, many enterprises have had to purchase additional IT equipment. In many cases, on-premise data centers will have finally been laid up. The office desktop PC may have been replaced for a device befitting of the work-anywhere worker.

This means there will be a spike in redundant hardware, and if data storage devices are not disposed of appropriately when they are decommissioned, millions of perfectly usable devices and harvestable components can make their way into landfills. According to the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, just 17.4% of those tens of millions of tons of e-waste produced in 2019 was properly collected and recycled. By not playing their part in ensuring the management of e-waste, enterprises run the risk of contributing to air, water, or soil pollution, particularly in the world’s poorest countries.

A security problem

Sustainable this isn’t, but then there’s another problem; even when saved from the trash heap, inadequate device sanitization can leave data behind, leading to data exposure, reputational harm, and regulatory penalties when devices are reused or recycled.

The report notes that while corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives (ensuring ethical practices and raising awareness of the social, environmental, and economic impact of their operations) are commonly a requirement and are increasingly in play, there is a lack of ownership both in policy communication, but also implementation.

Just half (50%) of enterprises surveyed had a dedicated e-waste policy in place that was communicated across the whole organization. And while it’s certainly positive that enterprises are becoming conscious of the issue, there isn’t enough focused responsibility in place to drive it home.

Respondents said responsibility should sit with anyone from the head of IT operations to the data protection offers or chief information security officer or even the legal department.

Interestingly, 47% of enterprises have created roles for implementing and ensuring compliance with e-waste policies specifically to deal with issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, while the pandemic has led to the purchase of additional devices to enable working from home, it has also driven the appointment of hundreds of e-waste-focused roles.

What does this mean for enterprises that may have embraced remote work for the long term? Enterprise policies must address both e-waste reduction and secure handling of end-of-life devices in the context of mass remote working.

In the coming years, businesses will have less physical oversight and access to their organizations’ devices than ever before. With both environmental sustainability and data security in mind, clear and designated policies must be in place and acted upon to ensure e-waste is reduced or disposed of properly.

“It’s fascinating that so many businesses have implemented roles to manage the e-waste issue resulting from Covid-19, demonstrating corporate social responsibility (CSR), but also their concern around how these devices will be dealt with when they reach end-of-life,” said Alan Bentley, President of Global Strategy at Blancco.

“It’s crucial that this issue is not overlooked and that these devices are appropriately disposed of.”