Improving Sustainability in the Circular Economy Through ITAD
Think Reuse before Recycling
With the breakdown in global recycling channels due primarily to countries like China upping their standards and refusing recycled materials, there is renewed interest and emphasis within e-waste on sanitizing data and reusing data-bearing IT assets. More than ever, organizations of all sizes in the public and private sectors are rethinking their IT asset disposition (ITAD) strategy, putting equipment reuse first whenever possible over asset destruction and recycling.
NOWHERE TO GO
In early 2019, a shift in the global recycling marketplace revealed serious failures in global recycling strategies. Photos began to appear in mainstream media of recycling processors and shippers piling up recycled materials by the ton that could no longer go to countries that previously sought them for conversion into new goods. Those countries were producing enough of their own recycled materials, so it no longer made financial sense to accept them from countries like the U.S. Without much warning, these countries abruptly stopped accepting shipments, and materials started piling up at their points of origin.
The change quickly rippled through the recycling world, all the way down to consumers who were told by municipalities to stop recycling entire classes of materials that would be going back into landfills for the foreseeable future. This was because the U.S. and other developed countries had been relying on “downstreaming” those materials for years, and largely lacked end-market recycling businesses that break down and convert recycled materials into new products.
This process change raises two important questions:
- How long will it take the U.S. and other countries to fill the gaps in the recycling industry?
- How much longer after that will it take consumers to get back into those tough-to-instill but easy-to-lose recycling habits?
It quickly became clear that stop-gap measures were needed immediately to thwart a potential decade-long setback in sustainability efforts in the U.S. One of the first ideas discussed was how to improve the practice of reuse.
The economy of the U.S. and many countries is built around the concept of planned obsolescence, where products have a deliberately short lifecycle that requires their entire replacement rather than upgrading their components and continuing to use them. And while there is a push to get manufacturers to change those practices and to make items more easily repairable, it’s not perceived to be in companies’ best financial interests, which makes it unlikely to change soon, if at all.
So how do we find markets for these end-of-life devices? If the item is outdated, no longer needed or desired, and being discarded by the previous owner, the next step is to find out what the demand is for that item in the global marketplace. As the saying goes, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”
Fortunately, the ITAD industry is a well-established and mature part of the circular economy. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of companies of all sizes and qualifications that “remarket” retired IT assets in particular. ITAD vendors typically acquire assets by charging clients to haul away their e-waste or by buying them at below market value. Some acquired items are resold on eBay in various countries, others are sold in volume to other resellers or brokers around the world, and others are sold directly to organizations where the used or refurbished assets fit their needs and their budgets.
Before retired devices can be safely resold, the data stored on them has to be correctly and permanently sanitized.
A 2017 study by the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) found that more than 40% of 250 devices, such as cellphones, tablets, and hard drives, bought from the “secondary market” had significant amounts of personally identifiable information (PII) on them, including credit card information, contact information, usernames and passwords, company and personal data, tax details, and more.
“The problem lies with service providers who are not qualified and, too often, with businesses and individuals who feel they can do it themselves,” said Robert Johnson, CEO, NAID.
“Companies used to think that they had to physically destroy retired data-bearing devices or run multiple passes of data-wiping software on hard drives to limit their risk of a data breach,” said Jeff Londres, founder and CEO of NextUse. “But with advances in hard drive and data-wiping software, data can be made completely unrecoverable in one economical pass, allowing the items to retain their value in secondary markets and have a productive second life with another organization.”
Whether you’re an IT asset manager, recycling director, or sustainability program manager of a corporation or a city government, the first step in more effective reuse starts with identifying what devices have strong secondary markets, such as retired IT assets from users, residents, enterprises, offices, agencies, school districts, and data centers.
Next, develop guidelines, implement policies, and secure buy-in from end users. For example, reusable items need to be diverted from recycling or disposal streams, and they must be handled, transported, and stored carefully to maintain condition and value.
The most important step of all is that data-bearing items need to be sanitized by vendors with industry-recognized data security and destruction certifications — NAID AAA in the U.S. or ADISA in the European Union.
Finally, limited pilot programs need to be run, monitored, and reported on, and adjustments need to be made in collaboration with vendor partners. Once the program is optimized according to the key performance indicator metrics, it can be scaled up as needed.
While the cost of reuse is comparable to recycling, it offers an environmental benefit.