Data, e-waste and the circular economy

Every day, the world produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data (there are eighteen zeros in quintillion), whether that is physical like medicine prescriptions on paper or digital like WhatsApp chats. Research indicates that by 2025, that figure will stand at 463 exabytes of data.

Ninety percent of all the data ever made was created in the last two years, primarily thanks to recent technological advancements. Alongside oceans of digital data, most organisations retain vast quantities of siloed physical data – on paper forms for example, and typically guarded under lock and key.

As a result, organisations face twin data challenges: the first is understanding how much data they have at their disposal, and the second is learning how to extract the greatest value from the information they have. At the same time, organisations must approach their data – and the hardware used to access it – sustainably to minimise e-waste and reduce environmental outcomes like landfill. The gold standard for any organisation is to access its most valuable data using hardware that is either recycled or efficiently destroyed at the end of its lifecycle, contributing to a growing digital circular economy.

Structured and unstructured data

Broadly speaking, different types of data fall into two categories: structured and unstructured. Structured data includes clearly defined, searchable types of data, accessible via navigable relational databases. Unstructured data includes native formats like video, audio, email and chat messages, presentations, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and so on. Unstructured data are typically stored in unsystematic ways across servers, desktops, and archived over time. They are considered unstructured in the sense that they are difficult for organisations to quickly and efficiently access.

Stuart Bernard

Consequently, any kind of consistent metadata extraction is out of the question for those businesses that fail to connect their various data sources. This makes it nearly impossible to find the needle in the data haystack that would otherwise provide them with valuable insight and allow them to build more intimate customer relationships. According to IDC, at least 80% of all enterprise data is unstructured, and that number continues to increase, despite growing economic, reputational and ecological incentives to adopt more sustainable practices. Digitisation tools are the key to unlocking the power latent in every organisation’s data and helping them find that signal in the noise, extracting value from both their physical and digital records and joining the dots between structured and unstructured data.

E-waste and the circular economy

The subject of e-waste is a particularly thorny one. When a piece of electronic hardware reaches the end of its useful life, two doors await it. Through the first lies permanent destruction or disposition in landfill. Through the second lies a sustainable recycling and secure data destruction process. The choice between those two doors is stark: e-waste is the fastest growing element of the world’s domestic waste stream according to the UN Global E-Waste Monitor. In 2019, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide – an increase of 21% in just five years, also according to the UN Global E-Waste Monitor 2020. When it comes to e-waste, the cheapest route is not always the best one: throwing old laptops into landfill is not any kind of defensible IT asset disposition and recycling strategy.

To help visualise the scale of the problem: the e-waste generated in 2019 weighed more than all the adults in Europe combined, or as much as 350 Queen Mary 2 cruise liners. Of that 53.6 million Mt of e-waste, just 17.4% was collected and recycled – demonstrating the plain reality that recycling activities are not keeping pace with the rate of growth of e-waste around the world.

A clean start?

Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many organisations to provide additional IT assets to employees to enable working from home. Throughout the pandemic, a global semiconductor shortage has made headlines as the precious metals (such as gold and copper) found in IT assets have been in short supply. Without comprehensive e-waste remarketing programs, many organisations would not have been able to properly equip their employees in the last year. Now is the perfect opportunity for organisations to assess their IT asset inventory – as well as their physical workspaces – and rejuvenate both for the post-COVID reality. In many ways, it’s time for a clean start.

Reduce, reuse, recycle for your reputation

We firmly believe the global IT asset market should become a circular economy, in which: assets are used until the end of their useful life either at the purchasing organisation or recycled, remarketed and resold to other organisations where they are used until they genuinely reach end of life. At this time, such assets are securely wiped of any remaining data and recycled for their permanently useful components and precious metals. The incentives for adopting such practices are obvious as the estimated value of the gold, silver, copper, platinum and other precious metals that was placed in landfill in 2019 was $57 billion.

Responsible e-waste practices aren’t just about preserving the planet, either. Secure IT Asset Disposition services (SITAD) typically guarantee zero landfill in adherence with regulatory requirements, and ensure that all data left on a piece of hardware are securely and completely destroyed. In addition, these services remove the costs organisations have historically faced in terms of recycling their IT assets. SITAD solutions make recycling old assets net zero cost for organisations, making sustainable and ethical ITAD practices more appealing.

Joining the dots

Ultimately, data protection, e-waste and recycling go hand-in-hand for today’s organisations. SITAD and data insight services can help organisations extract maximum value from the data at their disposal, make best use of their IT hardware assets, and guarantee ethical, environmentally friendly asset disposition practices that ensure data protection and destruction. Incentives are equal parts reputational, economic and ecological, and no organisation can afford to leave its data unexploited or its hardware inefficiently used or disposed of.


Stuart Bernard

VP Digital Solutions, EMEA at Iron Mountain


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