If UK plc is to reduce its considerable carbon footprint, it needs to produce far less electrical waste. Unfortunately, the problem may well get worse before it gets better
British businesses are harbouring a vast amount of potential e-waste, the catch-all term for any item requiring a battery or an electrical plug. The list includes computers, screens, phones, printers, scanners, photocopiers, fridges, microwaves, kettles, smoke detectors and security cameras. That’s a lot of items with finite lifespans scattered around commercial premises nationwide.
Whenever a firm needs to dispose of such goods, it must comply with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2013 (WEEE), as the toxic materials these items typically contain present a serious pollution risk. Many products will hold sensitive data, so this will also need to be securely wiped before their disposal.
According to The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, a research report published by the United Nations University, the UK became the world’s second-largest producer of e-waste per capita (23.9kg) after Norway in 2019. The global average for the year was 7.3kg per capita.
While that figure includes both domestic and commercial waste, most experts believe that the latter element will continue to increase as British firms adopt more and more tech to aid their digital transformations. The pandemic may also prove to be a factor, because many firms have bought new devices to enable staff to work at home, leaving existing equipment to gather dust in deserted offices.
In September 2020, data erasure specialist Blancco commissioned a survey of 600 senior decision-makers in large firms in the UK, the US, Germany, France and Japan. Nearly half (47%) of the respondents said that their firms had been obliged to create new roles to deal specifically with e-waste problems arising from the Covid crisis, such as the need to ensure organisation-wide WEEE compliance. Despite this, many companies are still mishandling their unwanted equipment, according to Blancco’s vice-president of enterprise and cloud erasure solutions, Fredrik Forslund.
“They lack proper awareness when dealing with end-of-life IT equipment and their approaches are unsustainable,” he argues. “According to our research, more than a third of enterprises destroy their used assets because they believe that it’s better for the environment. But this shredded refuse only adds to the growing e-waste issue.”
Forslund continues: “Following data erasure, those devices could be repurposed, resold or recycled. They could provide affordable options for second-hand purchasers, for instance, or they could be safely donated to organisations and communities that need IT equipment most, creating sustainable jobs in the refurbishment of electrical components.”
While the users of electrical equipment need to educate themselves in end-of-life management, manufacturers must also step up their game. There are still few formal programmes in existence for returning and recycling products they make, for instance.
“Responsibility falls on the firms creating these products, as well as the business leaders who buy them,” says Xavier Battinger, director of business development at Ricoh Industrie France. “Technology suppliers and manufacturers should ensure that all product parts are designed and built in a way that enables them to be recycled or reused. A sophisticated return and recycling process is key for optimal resource recovery. Ideally, these will be free and easy to use, as well as clearly documented to encourage maximum adoption.”
Joe Baguley, chief technology officer of Cloud computing firm VMware in EMEA, agrees that the problem requires a coordinated solution. His company has made bringing the amount of e-waste its operations send to landfill down to zero one of its strategic goals.
“We rigorously manage our IT assets. This includes the responsibility of disposing of our e-waste properly,” he says. “Reducing the amount of electronic waste building up globally, as well as the carbon footprint created in transporting it and disposing of it, remains a massive hurdle that must be balanced against the increasingly insatiable demand of consumers to have the next new thing.”
Baguley continues: “The technology industry must not be blinkered when it comes to addressing the challenges of managing e-waste. Improving company-specific operations to tackle the issue is absolutely necessary and should be championed, especially in global organisations.”
Driving long-term change
In August 2020, more than 1,000 corporate IT decision-makers across northern Europe were surveyed on behalf of 3stepIT, which works with businesses to find uses for obsolete or unwanted tech. Well over a third (37%) of respondents couldn’t say where their firms’ e-waste was ending up, while 10% admitted that they were still consigning unwanted items to landfill.
“Businesses need to reduce carbon emissions and answer calls from their workers and consumers for greener practices,” says 3stepIT’s CEO, Carmen Ene. “But they also need to replenish aging technology to keep pace with demands for greater performance and productivity, particularly as we move to hybrid working. What’s needed is a better solution to manage the IT lifecycle based on the principles of the circular economy. Businesses need to switch from a ‘take, make, dispose’ model to a ‘take, make, reuse or recycle’ mindset.”
While reducing e-waste is good for the environment, it also makes business sense. Research by Circular Computing shows that the UK could save £7.7bn over the next nine years by buying refurbished laptops instead of new devices. This would also save 9 million tonnes of carbon emissions, equivalent to taking 193,002 cars off the roads for a year, claims the study.
“The good news is that there are more brilliant and feasible sustainable solutions than ever – and it‘s not rocket science for boardrooms to implement change,” says Circular Computing’s head of sustainability and social inclusion, Steve Haskew. “The challenge seems to be more in changing behaviour.”
The first step, he adds, is for companies to take ownership of the problem and “ensure that someone senior has meaningful responsibility for measurement and improvement. Organisations also need to kick arbitrary procurement habits. So many firms replace their technology on a three-year cycle, replacing slightly used with brand new for no other reason than it’s how they’ve always done it.”
Haskew does believe that most businesses are at least acknowledging that e-waste is a problem to be taken seriously. “It’s the increasing importance that employees and other stakeholders are placing on sustainability that will really drive change and make a significant impact,” he predicts.