We live in an age where environmental reports from big technology companies drive headlines worldwide. And there’s good reason.

Globally, we use a lot of tech, and that has environmental implications:

  • Data centers are predicted to generate 3.2% of the total worldwide carbon emissions by 2025 and consume no less than a fifth of global electricity (ComputerWorld).
  • Around 50 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices are predicted to be in use around the world by 2030 (Statista). While IoT holds great environmental promise, it also brings a vast increase in data processing, data storage, device manufacturing and device and battery disposal.
  • While technology devices seem to shrink in size while expanding in capacity, as of 2020, global e-waste is up 21% in five years (TechRepublic, Global E-Waste Monitor 2020).

Against this backdrop, when the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Amazon tout their sustainability initiatives, investors and consumers alike listen: Being “greener” when it comes to technology manufacture, deployment, use and disposal is a good and needed thing.

For device disposal, there are two primary eco-friendly options—recycling and reuse—both of which have data sanitization implications.

Technology Recycling: Challenges & Promise

Turning over pallets of used hardware for recycling, whether in whole or in part, can be an efficient way business and government enterprises can “do good” for the world we inhabit.

However, in this Fast Company article, sustainability researchers Callie Babbitt and Shahana Althaf report that it’s not so clear cut. While well-intentioned organizations turn over PCs, phones, laptops, and hard drives for parts reuse and “urban mining” (harvesting of rare earth elements), the reality is that extracting these bits is increasingly complex, even though it’s very much needed.

“Electronics contain rare minerals and precious metals mined in socially and ecologically vulnerable parts of the world. Reuse and recycling can reduce demand for ‘conflict minerals’ and create new jobs and revenue streams,” say Babbitt and Althaf in the article. “But it’s not a simple process. Disassembling electronics for repair or material recovery is expensive and labor-intensive.”

Ironically, recycling has grown more difficult as technology has advanced. The authors state that innovations in touch screens, extended device battery life and the need for device speed and responsiveness have led to increased mining for natural resources, yet it’s often not commercially profitable to remove and reuse those elements.

“To make lightweight products, manufacturers miniaturized components and glued parts together, making it harder to repair devices and more expensive to recycle them.”

So, what are sustainability-minded enterprises to do? Is recycling off the table? No.

Recycling is very much a step in the right direction, and manufacturers are responding to the need.

For example, Dell has a closed loop gold recycling program, which reclaims gold from used electronics. It is also the first PC manufacturer to use recycled gold from e-waste in its products. The Design for Environment 2020 Report, produced by the Electronics Product Stewardship Canada (EPSC), notes that EPSC members also actively extract lead, mercury, cadmium, beryllium and antimony from such devices.

So yes, when recycling used IT assets, enterprises should seek out certified electronics recyclers to ensure that the greatest number of components are ethically and safely recycled from the hardware they no longer need.

Technology Reuse and the Recycling Overlap

Indeed, Babbitt and Althaf conclude that designing hardware that is easier to repair, recycle and mine, is one part of the solution to stunting e-waste growth.

They also recommend enacting e-waste legislation, having more certified recycling locations to handle discarded electronics, and extending the life of devices to make additional dents in the e-waste we produce globally.

But there is an overlap: Deciding which assets are to be recycled rather than reused often comes down to two things: device functionality and an enterprise’s data sanitization policies.

Functional vs. Non-functional Technolology

By reusing IT assets internally, selling them or donating them to organizations that don’t require cutting-edge tech, enterprises can make an even greater impact on sustainability.

Stretching the active usefulness of those assets extracts more value out of each device and keeps them from prematurely heading to a landfill or being exported illegally to dumping grounds in developing countries. Reuse also circumnavigates the need to replace that device with a brand new one that must be manufactured and sourced from scratch. And finally, it recognizes that the labor-intensive extraction of elements isn’t the most environmentally rewarding or profitable approach to addressing how to acquire the rare earth minerals used in our phones and tablets.

Unfortunately, in a 2019 survey by Blancco Technology Group, 35 percent of global enterprise respondents stated that their organizations physically destroyed devices and drives because they thought it was better for the environment.  For truly non-functional assets, destruction and recycling down to the elemental level may be the best option. But it shouldn’t be the first—nor only—option considered.

Data Sanitization Tiers: How to Make Sustainable Decisions When Disposing of Data Storage Technology

A tiered approach that incorporates data sanitization best practices can help enterprises make more sustainable decisions. While environmental protection is certainly a consideration, most enterprises will prioritize data security and protection when it comes to IT asset disposal.

As well they should.

Data sanitization is the process of deliberately, permanently and irreversibly removing or destroying the data stored on a memory device to make it unrecoverable. The three data sanitization methods: physical destruction, data erasure, and crypto-graphic erasure, can all play a role based on device functionality:

  • Fully functional IT assets can be safely reused once they have undergone certified and verified data erasure, a software-based method of data sanitization. In general, this method overwrites all data on the device (including hidden areas when using NIST Purge-level sanitization), verifies the erasure, and certifies the process. This completely and permanently removes all data while leaving the device functional and intact. Cryptographic erasure can also be an option here, but there are risks. For instance, improperly applied, “crypto-erase” methods can work well enough to make the drive appear as disabled and unusable, when in reality, only a small portion of the disk is erased or protected. There are also rising concerns about the long-term efficacy of digital cryptography.
  • IT assets that are mostly functional can also have some non-functional or outdated parts replaced: drives, processors or video cards, for instance. Conversely, functional components can be harvested and reused elsewhere. In either case, the data storage drives and chips should be thoroughly erased before the device is deconstructed, particularly if they are to be given new life. This ensures that intact data storage areas can’t be harvested for previously stored enterprise information.
  • IT assets that are non-functional should ensure that the drive itself is non-functional. Where possible, the drive should be removed from the non-functional device and be erased before it moves on. From there, non-functional devices can and should be destroyed using proper methods to achieve data sanitization. This includes a rigorous approach to recommended shred sizes so that data cannot be reconstituted from any part of the drive, as well as receiving a certificate of destruction for the destroyed drive or device.

A Word on Enterprise Technology Disposal Policies

There are also cases where enterprise e-waste or data disposal policies need to be updated to align with data sanitization processes that honor both environmental concerns and data protection. Many times, policies have been created based on outdated technological approaches or false impressions (such as destruction being better for the environment or treating all drive types the same).

In this age of sustainability focus, enterprises would benefit from taking a fresh look at these policies to make sure they align with current environmental and data sanitization best practices.

Recycle or Reuse? Enterprise Technology Disposal Has Environmental Implications

Enterprises have options in how to dispose of their used technology. With a tiered approach to end-of-life device disposal, and proper data sanitization policies and processes in place, recycling doesn’t have to be the first or only option for disposing of the vast number of PCs, laptops, servers, hard drives, mobile or smart devices that society now depends upon.

Reuse of functional IT data storage assets is a secure, viable option for even highly regulated industries. And greater adoption of reuse, along with continued recycling of parts or elements from non-functional devices, can help curtail the stream of e-waste we’re currently experiencing.