Why a Reuse-Focused Strategy is Important to IT Sustainability

Several factors are driving the e-waste problem within the IT sector including innovation which is rendering older technology useless, as well as outdated policies and mindsets around data security, making data hoarding prevalent and preventing more devices from entering the circular economy. In this article, I will explore these factors and explain why reuse should be the focus of IT sustainability strategies.

Fredrik Forslund, Vice President and General Manager, International

April 10, 2024

5 Min Read
Courtesy of Blancco

While recycling campaigns can help limit what goes to landfills, scientists believe that recycling has masked the glaring problem of over-production and de-emphasized other waste reduction strategies that are far more sustainable. This trend is being observed across a broad swath of industries. The latest UN 2024 Global E-waste Monitor report highlights that electronic waste (e-waste) is increasing five times faster than documented e-waste recycling and is projected to hit 82 billion kg (181 billion pounds) by 2030 – a 33% surge from 2022. The United Nations also reported that only 22.3% of the e-waste generated is being properly collected and recycled, a gap that is projected to widen.

 

Several factors are driving the e-waste problem within the IT sector including innovation which is rendering older technology useless, as well as outdated policies and mindsets around data security, making data hoarding prevalent and preventing more devices from entering the circular economy. In this article, I will explore these factors and explain why reuse should be the focus of IT sustainability strategies.

 

AI innovation will worsen the e-waste crisis

 

The dramatic e-waste figures we're seeing from this report are not surprising given the worldwide demand for electronic devices. According to Counterpoint Research, the global smartphone market grew by 7% YoY to reach 323.2 million units in Q4 2023 alone. Exacerbating the issue are device lifespans, some of which are shortened due to limited repair options. This problem is being highlighted by movements such as the Right to Repair, a call to limit powerful equipment manufacturers from restricting users’ ability to have their equipment repaired by qualified technicians, including laptops and other technology assets. Yet so far, only three states – California, New York, and Minnesota – have officially joined the movement through legislation aimed at enabling users to repair equipment independently. More traction is needed to make a sizable impact.

The inability for the private and public sector to come together to tackle the e-waste crisis and control the impact technology innovation will have on it has made matters worse. The widespread popularity and adoption of AI, for example, will have a significant impact on the growth of e-waste. This is because AI requires more powerful chipsets, GPUs and CPUs, which, in turn, will require companies to replace their IT equipment, creating a deluge of devices that can no longer support AI platforms and applications.

 

Data security concerns can impede recycling initiatives  

 

The gap between e-waste generation and recycling rates is also disheartening. There are multiple factors at play, including challenges with e-waste management infrastructure; however, one hurdle that ties specifically to the IT world is that of data security and compliance concerns. Devices changing custody, even for noble purposes such as recycling, has inherent risk, of which many organizations may or may not be acutely aware. In the summer of 2023, we released a report in which we surveyed 1,800 high-level IT and compliance managers from companies around the globe. The study found that while 88% of businesses claimed environmental sustainability had a high-to-moderate influence on their approach to processing end-of-life data, 39% did not have a solid plan in place on how to reduce their data footprint. An earlier study discovered that 35% of enterprises used physical destruction to sanitize end-of-life equipment because risk-averse leaders believed it to be better for the environment. Of these, 46% believed some resulting waste could be recycled or reused. That’s a lot of equipment heading to the landfill unnecessarily.

 

Data hoarding is also problematic for sustainability goals 

 

Some organizations mistakenly try to avoid data security risk issues through hoarding devices with sensitive data, leaving them in storage, sometimes for years. This practice leads to a different sustainability problem: powering storage for unnecessary data and devices that are out of commission, which is not only costly, but also wastes energy resources and expands the organization’s carbon footprint. The growing energy consumption of the information and communications technologies (ICT) sector has been steadily increasing, and now represents 10% of worldwide electricity consumption, impacting greenhouse gas emissions. For some companies, extra emissions can create a compliance issue. While the U.S Securities & Exchange Commission recently announced that it has scrapped Scope 3 emission reporting for public companies (a disappointing setback), Scope 1 and Scope 2 measurement requirements are still required. For other companies, ballooning emissions can cause reputational damage. impacting investments, recruiting efforts, and more.

 

Reuse strategies that advance sustainability objectives and curb e-waste

 

Our goal in the business community is to identify better reuse strategies. The reuse of data-bearing assets keeps equipment from changing custody outside of the organization, and advances sustainability objectives with the least data security risk in the process.

 

A highly effective reuse strategy is cascading equipment internally. For instance, say a device is no longer powerful enough to support the R&D team, then IT may consider transferring it to the finance or legal department for a second life. Of course, any time a device changes hands or departments, it’s essential to create a checklist that includes certified data sanitization to ensure secure movement from one department to another.

 

Updating company policies to extend device lifecycles is also key to help save perfectly functional devices from going to landfills. An IT policy change stating that company assets must be refreshed within five years instead of three years, for example, can go a long way. It also complements the cascading strategy, giving second-hand devices more time to be useful.

 

For every additional year of reuse within the organization, there is significant sustainability value, including a smaller carbon footprint. Once the equipment has been reused within an organization, to the extent possible, that’s when secure recycling – or donating functional assets -- is the appropriate next step. With modern-day, certifiable data sanitization options, no assets should be physically destroyed for security purposes, and recycling and/or donation opportunities should never be declined due to data security risk.

About the Author(s)

Fredrik Forslund

Vice President and General Manager, International, Blancco Technology

Fredrik Forslund currently serves as Vice President and General Manager of International Sales for Blancco Technology Group. Fredrik brings over 20 years of experience in IT security. This includes most recently leading Blancco's data center and cloud erasure initiatives and before that, founding SafeIT, a security software company focusing on encryption and selective data erasure. His experience also includes serving as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company.

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