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Covid-19 shift to remote working adds to Earth’s growing e-waste problem

The shift to remote working has forced firms to purchase new IT equipment, but many are still lacking sustainable end-of-life processes for their devices

The uptick in remote working-related IT kit purchases caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked concerns over how enterprises are planning to deal with the increase in electronic waste (e-waste) these deployments may cause.

According to The rising tide of e-waste study, produced by data sanitisation firm Blancco in partnership with business-to-business research firm Coleman Parkes, nearly all of the 600 enterprises surveyed (97%) had to purchase new laptops to accommodate the shift to remote working.

Enterprises also purchased a total of 92 devices on average, which included tablets and smartphones.

In response to this uptick, nearly half (47%) of enterprises said they had created new roles for implementing and ensuring compliance with e-waste policies, specifically to deal with the e-waste generated by increased remote working.

Approximately 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year, most of which is either incinerated or dumped in the landfills of the world’s poorest countries. According to the Global e-waste monitor, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes was produced worldwide in 2019.

However, the Blancco study found that while 44% of enterprises do already have an e-waste policy in place for end-of-life device management, it was not yet being communicated or implemented, largely due to a lack of ownership over the policy.

For example, only half of enterprises had a dedicated e-waste policy in place that was communicated across the whole organisation, and 36% claimed their e-waste policies had not been circulated because no one had taken control of them.

A previous study by Blancco in April 2020 looked at policies of 1,850 of the world’s largest enterprises and similarly found that, despite 83% of organisations having an e-waste-focused corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy in place, only a small amount of end-of-life equipment is actually being sanitised and reused.

Aside from the issues related to the environmental impact, the high volume of firms purchasing new IT equipment has also created data management concerns, with 78% agreeing the pandemic has caused an unnecessary short-term investment in technology that will leave their businesses data at greater risk due to its storage across a wider range of devices.

“It’s crucial that this issue is not overlooked and that these devices are appropriately disposed of. But it’s just as crucial to ensure the safeguarding of sensitive data during that process,” said Alan Bentley, president of global strategy at Blancco.

“Appropriate data sanitisation might at times be overlooked as an element of e-waste policies, but it is the perfect opportunity to engage data management best practices. Not only will this reduce environmental impact, it will also remove the risk of a data breach when disposing of devices at end-of-life.”

When asked what will happen to their newly purchased devices when no longer required for remote work, 28% of enterprises said laptops would be erased and resold, while a further 27% said they would be erased for internal reuse.

An additional 12% said they would be erased and recycled, and 9% will send them to an IT asset disposition (ITAD) supplier.

The findings therefore suggest that nearly a quarter of all enterprises, or the remaining 24%, still do not have sustainable plans for their used devices.

“It’s essential that sanitising the device of data, by erasing the data onsite rather than destroying the device itself, forms part of an enterprise’s e-waste and CSR policy. This ensures the safeguarding of any sensitive data before that device is reused,” said the report.

“A key part in tackling that challenge is ensuring all e-waste and CSR policies include appropriate methods of sanitisation and step-by-step processes to follow when it comes to device lifecycle management.

“This could even involve classifying data based on type and confidentiality level as well as specifying how to comply with regulatory data protection and auditing requirements during device disposal.”

It added that enterprises should also create policies that require stringent ‘chain of custody’ processes, which would show how data and devices have been handled all the way from acquisition to disposition.

“By extending the device lifespans, enterprises can not only maximise value from their IT purchases but also put them back into the circular economy. Devices can be sold to earn carbon credits, reused internally or safely donated to organizations that have less need for the most current or top-of-the-line technologies,” it said.

“In addition, components can be recaptured for use in future devices. These options reduce the amount of e-waste produced, reduce the rate of natural resource consumption, provide affordable options for second-hand purchasers and create sustainable jobs in the refurbishment of electrical components.”

Read more about green IT

  • Electronic waste is a massive and growing problem, but many companies are not recycling or reusing IT equipment, instead opting for physical destruction of the assets
  • More than 1,000 of the UK’s greenest businesses will share £134m government funding to drive up their productivity, create new jobs and develop new technologies for tackling climate change.
  • One of the unintended consequences of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic was the drastic reduction in carbon emissions from the profound effects of the near-global lockdown on air, bus and car travel. But while that reduction was a welcome development, the big question was whether it could be maintained when the recovery began.

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