The Agbogbloshie scrap yard in Ghana is home to 80,000 residents who subsist by breaking up e-waste to recover metals. But any adult who eats a single egg laid by the free-range chickens who reside there would expose themselves to a dangerous level of toxic chemicals, reported The Guardian.

This scrap yard is one of many places around the world where poorly disposed e-waste goes to fester, leaking poison and toxins into food, water, and soil. In 2021, the world generated 57.4 million tons of e-waste, outweighing the Great Wall of China. Government agencies can set a better tone for industry and society by committing to reducing e-waste.

Fredrik Forslund, Blancco Vice President of Enterprise & Cloud Erasure Solutions, shares how government agencies can lead the way in reducing e-waste by erasing data securely with software, making full use of existing IT equipment, and setting regulations.

Erasing data securely with software

One way to extend the life of IT devices is through erasing data with software rather than relying on physical destruction to remove sensitive data, shares Forslund.

E-waste that is not properly disposed of can affect the environment by releasing cancer-causing toxins into the air. It can also contaminate soil with heavy metals that can make their way into ponds and seawater, endangering marine life and our oceans.

Physical methods of destroying IT devices to remove data, such as drilling holes, melting, and burning, can release such toxic chemicals. In contrast, data erasure can securely remove sensitive data without harming the environment, while allowing the equipment to be reused.

The overwhelming concern regarding reusing media storage devices is security, notes Forslund. 46 per cent of 596 public sector respondents in a Blancco survey shared that they chose to physically destroy drives as opposed to other methods to maintain security.

However, depending on how it’s done, physical destruction does not guarantee that data is irretrievable, explains Forslund. Forensic teams may still be able to recover data from seemingly destroyed drives. Agencies can instead adopt software-based methods to render data inaccessible against sophisticated laboratory techniques and run third-party tests to certify that data is completely erased.

Physical destruction should only be a last resort, emphasises Forslund.

When an asset does come to the end of it’s useful life, agencies should also try to recycle materials to the best of their abilities, rather than simply disposing of them, he suggests. For instance, the rare metals that power hard drives can be recovered for future applications even when hard drives have reached end of life.

When agencies verifiably wipe data clean and reuse data storage drives, they can also save money. According to the public sector survey, government agencies with more than 1,000 employees are each spending between US$21,495 and US$28,660 a year on average destroying solid-state drives. If agencies reuse rather than destroy drives, they can reduce this figure significantly.

Make full use of existing IT equipment

Government agencies can endeavour to make full use of existing IT equipment, shares Forslund. They can do this by putting a stop to the unnecessary destruction of IT assets in the name of data security and reusing IT equipment like solid-state drives.

“Everything comes with a carbon footprint”, notes Forslund. From production, packaging, to shipping, IT equipment like solid-state drives arrive at an agency’s doorstep having already generated a sizable carbon footprint, he explains.

When agencies discard IT equipment prematurely to ensure that sensitive data is not accessible, they add on to this carbon footprint. Then, IT companies expend more resources to produce new equipment, generating even more carbon emissions.

Respondents in the Blancco survey reported that, collectively, they spend between US$12.8 million to US$17 million each year destroying solid-state drives, and another US$40 million replacing them, shares Forslund.

Organisations annually dispose of roughly one solid-state drive for every three employees, refreshing technology every three to four years, even while devices are still functional. Devices that are destroyed have their useful life cut short, and redeployment, resale, and return options are no longer possible – wasting the device’s potential for reuse.

In Australia, Blancco is partnering with Ethan Indigenous, an ICT service provider that delivers opportunities to Indigenous Australians, to support the donation of used government and enterprise laptops to Indigenous youth who lack access to the Internet. Blancco helps securely erase drives and laptops, ensuring that previously stored data is rendered inaccessible.

SGTech, Singapore’s leading trade association for the tech industry, has also been supporting repair and reuse efforts, shared GovInsider. Their 2021 #EWASTENOMORE challenged the public to find innovative ways to upcycle or repair faulty household appliances. They have also been running a series of repair demonstrations online to encourage a culture of repair and reuse.

Set regulations

Finally, government agencies can set regulations to reduce e-waste and promote recycling.

Countries around the world have released green plans, from Singapore’s Green Plan, to the United States and Canada’s Greening Government Initiative. These plans signal a commitment to climate action by aiming to reduce carbon emissions, swap to renewable energy, and reduce waste.

Blancco’s research survey found that 93 per cent of public sector respondents have clear plans to reduce the environmental impact caused by destroying IT equipment. However, less than a quarter are actively implementing these plans.

One example of an agency putting these plans into action is Sweden, shares Forslund. The Swedish government’s National Agency for Public Procurement is encouraging sustainable procurement through a set of sustainability criteria. This includes encouraging contracting authorities to purchase from suppliers that provide a reuse and recycling service for worn-out IT equipment.

As e-waste becomes a more pressing problem globally, governments can take the first step to encourage a culture of responsible consumption, by erasing data securely with software, making full use of equipment, and setting regulations.