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Electronic waste excluded from COP26 agenda

Data sanitation industry group calls on UK government to add electronic waste to the climate summit’s agenda

The International Data Sanitisation Consortium (IDSC) has urged COP26 president Alok Sharma to include electronic waste (e-waste) in the climate summit’s agenda, calling its exclusion a missed opportunity to encourage engagement with the circular economy.

According to the United Nations’ (UN) Global e-waste monitor 2020, e-waste is the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, with a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) generated in 2019 alone. It predicted that by 2030, global e-waste will reach 74 Mt annually.

The IDSC, which was established in 2017 to standardise terminology and practices across the data sanitisation industry, said in an open letter to Sharma that, as the second-largest producer of e-waste per capita in the world, the UK has the opportunity to set an example in this area.

“As president of the COP26, your role in ensuring the UK is a leader in promoting greener, more sustainable models of waste management is a critical one for tackling our climate emergency – and it’s one that our technology-driven society can support with the right policies and incentives,” it said, adding that there has been a total disregard for e-waste in the UK government’s Net Zero strategy and Ten Point Green Plan.

“This is a missed opportunity to encourage increased engagement with the circular economy,” it continued. “Where current government strategies have outlined intentions to create solutions to lower emissions, opportunities to promote and incentivise more reuse and recycling of scarce materials and functional products have been overlooked.

“While pursuing renewable sources of energy and lowering CO2 emissions is a global imperative, the UK government’s roadmap suggests this will take time. Implementing sustainable models that tackle e-waste can be done in the immediate future and must be seriously considered.”

It further asked that the UK government provides guidance to both organisations and consumers on how to transition away from current attitudes towards end-of-life electronics and IT equipment, whereby items are simply disposed of and replaced, rather than reused or recycled.

Read more about electronic waste and the circular economy

  • There is growing recognition that the tech sector produces mountains of e-waste and consumes significant amounts of energy and natural resources.
  • A circular economy is among the long-term measures needed to combat climate change. This requires data transparency across supply chains.
  • A lack of data erasure services is the main barrier to people recycling their old tech equipment, according to electronic waste experts running the Tech-Takeback pop-up.

Part of this guidance, it added, would need to consider data sanitisation policy reform, with the goal of installing the correct data management practices so that IT equipment can be taken for reuse, refurbishment or recycling without the security concern of data being exposed.

“We, the IDSC, believe there is a clear relationship between data protection technology, e-waste reduction and circular economy growth,” it said. “Organisations are largely unsure of how they can engage with the circular economy as data regulation and public sector policy do not advocate for the reuse of data bearing assets.

“By this letter we ask for your support in raising awareness of the need to immediately address the e-waste issue and unlock the potential of the circular economy. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss this in greater detail.”

Adam Read, president of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), has also described the lack of e-waste on the COP26 agenda as a “critical oversight”, further calling for global leaders to recognise the crucial role that recycling and resource management has to play in supporting decarbonisation.

Sharma, who was previously business secretary, was appointed president for COP26 in January 2021, but has retained his cabinet member status. Computer Weekly contacted Sharma and the Cabinet Office for comment but received no response by time of publication. The IDSC added that it has received no acknowledgement from him either.

E-waste a top priority for IT professionals

According to a separate survey of the IT industry conducted by BCS in the run up to COP26, ending e-waste was the top answer IT experts gave when asked which tech-related actions governments and companies should look to implement first.

After e-waste (30%), respondents chose carbon transparency reporting (19%) and making datacentres truly “green” (14%) as the first actions that should be taken. A further 61% said they were not confident that digital technologies were being used effectively against climate change, while 64% expressed concern that the UK workforce does not currently have the right digital skills to achieve Net Zero.

“Rather than being dependent on new devices as soon as we have a failure, the ‘right to repair’ legislation should be starting to make it easier for people to extend the life of their devices,” said Alex Bardell, chair of the BCS Green IT Specialist Group. “If the starter motor failed on your car, you would go to the garage and get a new part, rather than chucking the car away.

“The challenge is that the business model for electronics firms is to push their products, like smartphones, on ever smaller time cycles as a way of generating revenue and it really does not need to be this way. It takes combined political, social and commercial will to put the planet ahead of an ever tighter upgrade cycle.”

John Booth, vice chair at BCS, added: “The problems with e-waste are just one of the many problems that need to be addressed in the ICT sector, as well as datacentre energy efficiency and sustainability, and its response to the climate emergency has been limited so far, although I am hopeful that progress will be made sooner rather than later.”

In March 2021, IDSC’s Fredrik Forslund told Computer Weekly that implementing proper data sanitisation processes with audit trails would help tech enterprises reuse their IT equipment, as it would give them more confidence that a device can be redeployed without the risk of privacy breaches.

He added that tech businesses should also collaborate in the supply chain to standardise “ecolabels”, which would work in a similar way to ingredients on food packaging, so that enterprises know exactly what materials their IT equipment contains and therefore how to recycle them. This is important as many rare earth metals used in electronics can produce toxic waste if not dealt with correctly.

EAC investigation

In November 2020, an investigation by the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) found the country is lagging behind other nations in embedding a circular economy of use, reuse and recycle for small electronics, with the vast majority of waste not being dealt with properly.

“A lot of it goes to landfill, incineration or is dumped overseas. Under current laws, producers and retailers of electronics are responsible for this waste, yet they are clearly not fulfilling that responsibility,” wrote the EAC, noting that roughly 40% of the UK’s e-waste is sent abroad, which “is illegal”.

It added that “for all their protestations of claimed sustainability”, major online retailers such as Amazon have avoided engagement with the circular economy by not collecting or recycling electronics in the same way other types of organisations have to.

“Given the astronomical growth in sales by online vendors, particularly this year during the coronavirus pandemic, the EAC calls for online marketplaces to collect products and pay for their recycling to create a level playing field with physical retailers and producers that are not selling on their platforms,” it said.

The EAC also found that actual producers of electronic products, such as Apple, are intentionally shortening the life span of their products, while also “making any repair nearly impossible” by gluing and soldering together internal components, leaving consumers with little control over the devices they own.

“They cannot take components out to repair themselves and they cannot access manuals on how issues can be fixed,” it said. “Instead, the charges proposed for repair by Apple in particular can be so expensive that it is more economical to replace the item completely.”

While the UK introduced right to repair legislation in March 2021, it does not cover smartphones or laptops – key products contributing to the issue – despite its inclusion of “electronic displays”.

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