Why the Future of IT is Circular


By Thomas Hollander, Secure ITAD EMEA Director, Iron Mountain

Recycling has become a part of our day-to-day lives. Whether it’s the ritual of sorting our household waste or making the switch to reusable products, taking proactive steps towards sustainability goals by managing waste is already ingrained in our behaviour.

This behaviour is supporting a widespread shift towards a circular economy, defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a system that eliminates waste and pollution and circulates products and materials at their highest value[1], whether that be products used in the home, commercial goods or IT equipment.

As we head into Recycling Week this October (17-23 October the UK), brands and businesses will be thinking about ways to help motivate consumers to recycle more of the right things, more often. Yet, for the practice to really move the dial, organisations need to think about how they can adopt better recycling behaviours and circular principles within their own operations, and the benefits of doing so. As digital infrastructure spreads in the workplace, critical to this will be the managing of IT equipment.

The scale of the problem

E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream. According to UNEP[2], the world produces as much as 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-Waste) a year, weighing more than all of the commercial airliners ever made, with current trends such as hybrid working fuelling predictions of 120 million tonnes per year by 2050[3].

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the annual value of global e-Waste, including IT equipment and electronics such as computers, laptops, phones, hard drives and tablets, is worth over $62.5 billion. And yet, less than 20% of this resource is formally recycled.

This means there are missed opportunities, both environmental and commercial, for businesses to embed circular principles into their IT operations. When considering the lifecycle management of your company’s IT assets a more sustainable approach can offer a number of benefits.

3 benefits of secure IT asset recycling and disposition

  1. It can help you meet your sustainability goals

Now more than ever, businesses are under pressure to meet their sustainability challenges and tackle climate change head-on. Research on organizational resilience, conducted by Economist Impact with C-Suite executives found sustainability to be a top five business priority alongside areas such as digital transformation and cybersecurity. As businesses develop and communicate their own sustainability credentials, those who embrace sustainable solutions will have the edge.

Manufacturing new hardware accounts for over 70% of carbon emissions in the IT industry[4] and e-waste recycling services, such as those offered by Iron Mountain, mean IT assets are demanufactured into commodity categories. The Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Forum found that every tonne of e-Waste that is recycled can avoid around 2 tonnes of CO2 emissions[5]. From hyperscalers to corporate offices, businesses have the ability to make a tangible impact not just on their own operations but for the planet at large.

  1. It can save you money

A circular economy relies on the notion that retired assets should be treated as a valuable commodity.

By safely recertifying and remarketing decommissioned equipment, businesses can recuperate maximum market value from end-of-life IT assets through remarketing or redeployment. While products may come to the end of their lifecycle, their use does not have to; a customer Iron Mountain worked with to securely dispose of data-bearing assets gained approx. £500,000 in potential annual revenue from their resale[6].

For those IT assets that can’t be given a productive second life, their value can be extracted through recycling. Valuable materials commonly used within electronic devices, such as gold, silver and copper can be extracted and repurposed. For example, for every one million mobile phones, 15-16 tonnes of copper, 340-350kg of silver and almost 34kg of gold can be extracted[7].

  1. It can keep your data safe

As well as the environmental challenges associated with e-waste, businesses can face a number of data security risks if, at their end of life, IT assets are not managed responsibly. These assets can hold sensitive and confidential data, which if breached, can carry serious fines and inflict severe reputational damage. It’s no surprise then that the Economist Impact survey lists cybersecurity as a top priority for businesses. When looking for a partner to support IT asset disposition, it’s important to do your research to make sure their services are secure and fully compliant.

Some key questions to ask are: is there a secure chain of custody that allows you to track assets as they are being processed? Will you receive an auditable certificate of data destruction? Are your IT assets being disposed of ethically, responsibly and compliant with regulations? For example, in the EU, any service you use must be compliant with the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE).

The circular economy today

Use Recycling Week this September to think about how you can adopt more circular solutions in the workplace as well as the home. End-of-life IT equipment doesn’t have to be a challenge, but an opportunity.

[1] https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/circular-economy-introduction/overview

[2] https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/un-report-time-seize-opportunity-tackle-challenge-e-waste

[3] https://manufacturingdigital.com/procurement-and-supply-chain/spike-in-work-from-home-environments-e-waste-trends

[4] Data Center Impact Report: The Financial & Sustainability Case for Circularity, A.Fenn and F.Fesch, ITRenew, 2020

[5] https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/electronic-waste-pollution-recycling-phones-b1937904.html

[6] https://www.ironmountain.com/uk/services/secure-it-asset-disposition#:~:text=Iron%20Mountain%20Secure%20IT%20Asset,sold%20at%20best%20market%20rates.

[7] https://www.ecovoice.com.au/how-a-circular-economy-is-key-in-achieving-a-more-sustainable-future/