E-waste – how to make second-hand devices available while safeguarding sensitive data

ALAN E-waste – how to make second-hand devices available while safeguarding sensitive data

by Alan Bentley, President of Global Strategy, Blancco

Every year enterprises generate a staggering 50 million tons of e-waste, the equivalent of 5,000 Eiffel Towers in weight. Most of these electronics end up in landfills, often shipped illegally to developing countries where the equipment and its components are stripped down for their raw materials. Unfortunately, this is often a task for society’s most vulnerable individuals and often at a detriment to their health as well as the environment.

IT equipment often contains toxic or hazardous materials, such as mercury and lead, with levels of contamination 100 times higher than recognized safety thresholds. If they are improperly disposed of, these hazardous materials can harm anyone who is exposed to them. The fact is, enterprise leaders need to rethink how they handle electronics at end-of-life and reduce global e-waste.

The pandemic, today, has not only put a lot of strain on businesses purchasing IT equipment, it’s also forced many to take drastic financial measures simply to survive, such as cutting what they define as “non-essential” programs. For example, a recent survey of 200 UK-based businesses has found that 60% have either decreased their investment in sustainability initiatives as a result of COVID-19 or are planning to do so. This feels like a step backward, but there is still hope.

Many businesses today are following Corporate Social Responsibility policies, not only because it helps them reduce their carbon footprint but also because it can have a positive impact on their revenues. Indeed, environmental concerns are increasingly top of mind for consumers.

A good product is no longer enough to win a customer’s favor. Today they want more than just quality and are often looking for products and brands that align with their personal values.

Stuck in a linear upgrade cycle

The production of e-waste is a contemporary problem and is propelled by the “upgrade cycle” both businesses and customers are stuck in. Constant technological innovation means that new iterations of similar electronic products are constantly created, manufactured, marketed, and sold. The issue is that this is a linear process from manufacturing to disposal.

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Working against this is the secondary device market, where devices are refurbished and resold, not only reducing e-waste but supplying much-needed equipment to customers and businesses alike.

Enterprises’ dependence on the constant supply of new devices was proven by the global pandemic, which caused many OEMs to close factories and disrupted supply chains with travel restrictions and regional lockdowns.

Enterprises, such as Google, felt the impact of a reduced supply of electronic devices for employees suddenly working remotely. With laptops and phones being in limited supply, many turned to refurbished equipment as an option to maintain business continuity.

It’s clear that the secondary device market was and still is essential for keeping enterprises supplied with IT equipment in these unprecedented times and that extending electronic device lifecycles could be a huge contributor to the reduction of e-waste. However, the problem is that not enough IT equipment is entering the secondary market. Rather than being sanitized and recycled to meet demands, it’s being sent to landfill and feeding the growing e-waste problem.

One of the key reasons for not supplying the secondary device market with used equipment is data security concerns. By sending old IT equipment to landfills, many organizations believe they are acting responsibly from both a data security and environmental perspective.

In a research conducted by Blancco, enterprises collectively destroy hundreds of IT assets per year. Additionally, over a third of organizations surveyed physically destroy end-of-life equipment because they believe it is “better for the environment”. This is entirely unnecessary, but there is a lack of education in sustainable IT asset disposal.

For example, the same research found that 39% of organizations believe destruction is more secure than other data sanitization methods. But if not undertaken following best practice methods with an associated audit trail, physical destruction is actually highly insecure. However, there are more sustainable solutions that can, at the same time, save money, reduce e-waste and keep a company’s data secure.

Data erasure to the rescue

One of them is data erasure. Modern data erasure solutions have made physical destruction of used IT equipment for the purpose of data protection obsolete. Today, enterprises can securely sanitize any data from used IT equipment, even remotely, allowing it to be recycled and resold in the secondary device market and put back into the circular economy.

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By extending IT equipment’s lifespan and making sensitive data unrecoverable, not only does data erasure remove the need to hoard used IT equipment, saving enterprises money on storage, but it also removes the need for physical destruction – helping them to adopt sustainable IT practices and minimizing e-waste potential.

If the device has reached end-of-life, physical destruction with a full audit trail is, of course, an effective method of data protection, but it also means there’s no chance individual components can be recycled or repurposed – adding to the e-waste issue.

Enterprises today should be operating within this circular economy and be confident in the ability of data erasure solutions to prevent data leaks. Not only an environmental prerogative, but it could also help bolster their brands. For example, the London Stock Exchange now recognizes companies with sustainable business models.

Its “Green Economy Mark” accreditation informs investors who are increasingly interested in backing companies producing environmentally beneficial products and services. Many enterprises that relied on the secondary device market to supply their employees with IT equipment during the pandemic should recognize the importance of keeping that industry supplied.

Enterprise leaders need to collectively close the loop on the linear upgrade cycle and think about where our old devices end up. Outdated concerns like data security are no longer a good reason for physically destroying or hoarding IT equipment when data erasure solutions can securely remove all sensitive data and allow devices to be recycled.