Though carbon emissions have become the talk of the town, electronic waste (or “e-waste”) has crept up and quietly grown to pose one of the largest challenges to environmental sustainability. In fact, we are tossing hundreds of thousands of electronic assets each year.
It is easy to blame the biggest companies for prematurely tossing out their electronic assets or people who switch phones every year. But as usual, there are multiple sides of the coin.
Those perspectives show that the blame lies on both the player and the game and tackling the e-waste problem will require public-private collaboration for a variety of reasons.
1. Weak Enforcement From Both Businesses and Governments
While some companies have made commitments to sustainability, others simply don’t prioritize it. In the latter case, sustainability policies are often not communicated on a company-wide basis, which leaves some operators in the dark.
Recently, I interviewed Fredrik Forslund, Vice President at Blancco Technology Group; he told me that the electronic waste problem often originates from not enforcing an audit trail for old equipment.
“One might believe that the process chosen will have a good end result,” he told me. “But when properly investigating all steps in a process of what happens to the equipment and materials after destruction, one might find that the case is the opposite.”
Currently, we’re simply lacking a system that holds companies accountable for their pledges. And the lack of robust governmental guidelines has only enabled complacency.
In the US, twenty-five states have yet to impose comprehensive electronic waste programs. On the federal level, bills that explicitly address the issue have been introduced before, but frequently stall and disappear.
2. Unnecessary Destruction of End-Of-Life Equipment Fuels Electronic Waste
When our phones break, we usually toss them into a drawer and forget about them. Similarly, some companies choose to stockpile IT assets over recycling or re-use alternatives. Ultimately, the risk of physical destruction increases because companies are uncertain with what to do with them.
From a digital perspective, companies also engage in the physical destruction of old assets when they want to erase data from hardware. Over one-third of organizations employ shredding or crushing as a form of data sanitization, believing it to be “good for the environment.”
But this couldn’t be more untrue. IT equipment often contains hazardous chemicals, including mercury and lead. And when improperly disposed of, these chemicals pose serious threats to people and the environment.
3. Shortage of Market Education
Because there’s a lot of buzz around the carbon emissions problem, the general public has been largely well-informed. But because we don’t talk nearly as much about electronic waste, it is often not a focal point.
This isn’t just for the general public; it’s for businesses too. Even the largest enterprises often put solutions to tackle electronic waste on the back burner. If businesses were to identify weaknesses in their current practices and implement solutions to tackle electronic waste, trade offs would include saving time, money, and resources, with added benefits like earning thousands of carbon credits in some cases.
Public-Private Collaboration Will Be Crucial to Tackling Electronic Waste
Politically, electronic waste itself is not a partisan issue. At one point, both Democrats and Republicans in the US legislature backed the 2019 Secure E-Waste and Recycling Act. And so the business-government dynamic will play an essential role in mitigating unnecessary electronic waste pile up — but it needs to see support from both sides of the aisle.