COVID-19 intensified the enterprise e-waste problem

The pandemic accelerated the e-waste problem as enterprises bought more devices for the WFH transition but forgot to change their behaviour around e-waste. We need better sustainable practices around enterprise e-waste.


Sustainability has become a buzzword in the enterprise world, with both governments and businesses pledging to do their part to tackle climate change. And while sustainability and climate change are two important areas of focus, there is one major problem that enterprises have overlooked – e-waste. Besides the risk of unauthorised access to sensitive data, discarding technology improperly can produce excess carbon emissions and toxic pollutants – in 2019 alone, more than 53 million metric tonnes of e-waste was produced, with a prediction it will reach 74Mt by 2030. Clearly, this is a problem that is not going away.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this crisis as businesses scrambled to buy technology to help their employees work remotely. According to research by Blancco Technology Group, nearly 97% of enterprises had to purchase additional devices like laptops, with 75% buying them brand new. A trend that likely occurred across a variety of businesses such as schools, banks, or even government organisations.

What happens to these devices once employees start to make their transition back to the office? There is bound to be a surplus of stock sitting at home or in a storeroom. Craig Campion, Head of ITAD services at Stone Group comments on the potential e-waste impact of this transition as businesses return to their normal places of work over the next few months. “We’re going to see IT managers having to make some tough decisions on surplus equipment. With currently only 17% of hardware being recycled sustainably [Global E-Waste Report 2020], I really hope businesses make responsible decisions over with the redundant kit they no longer need,” he says.

There is another trend that is adding to this growing problem, and that is the shift in how people are working in these hybrid environments. The use of mobile devices has been on the rise and it seems desktops are no longer in demand. Campion says, “our own data supports this, with desktop sales for 2020 down by 50%. If businesses and public sector organisations are replacing desktops for mobile devices, this suggests that as many as 50% of desktop computers could be redundant in the UK.”

It raises the question of how this surplus stock - which can add up to thousands of desktops - will be taken care of, and whether enterprises will follow the best practices to dispose of or recycle stock in a sustainable way.   

How and why do enterprises fall short?

According to The Rising Tide of E-Waste report, only 24% of end-of-life equipment was sanitized and reused, despite 83% of organisations having a CSR policy in place. It highlights a significant gap between policy communication and implementation, and a lack of leadership around end-of-life device management.

Mateo Dugand, Technologist, IT Efficiency & Sustainability, at HPE EMEA says the three main challenges businesses face in advancing e-waste and CSR policies around device disposal are asset management, security and data privacy and transparency. He explains how in some instances “many organisations fail to categorise their assets with different levels of data privacy, which often requires the complete destruction of the assets, resulting in an impossible second life for these.”

It’s also important to mention that electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is very complex. Up to 69 elements from the periodic table can be found in EEE, including precious metals. Which means that the recycling process can be complicated, from ensuring proper collection and treatment to the final disposal of EEE. A lot of the time businesses struggle to find the right partner or service provider to help pick up and process their old equipment, resulting in a lot of redundant assets being irresponsibly disposed of.

Campion also points out that “many organisations have lost sight of their IT estates. The pandemic has exacerbated this issue as people are working remotely making it difficult for businesses to keep track of their IT assets.”

What is clear is that there is a lack of overall understanding of managing the entire lifecycle of a device, especially with device disposal. Business leaders have to take greater responsibility over their organisation’s CSR and sustainability practices. To do so, they need a well-planned end-to-end IT asset management strategy, one that controls the acquisition, maintenance, renewal, and disposal of devices.

Encouraging sustainable practices

So, what are the steps enterprises can take to improve and accelerate their sustainable e-waste policies? First, businesses must do their due diligence for their asset disposal. They have to find WEEE compliant, IT Asset Disposal professionals who can help correctly recycle or dispose of old, broken or redundant IT equipment.

The main answer points to a circular economy approach, by focusing on upcycling devices. Repairing a device is a far more effective solution than buying a brand new one, both financially and environmentally, as it reduces the carbon footprint of another device entering the IT estate. By refurbishing devices, enterprises can significantly reduce their e-waste, and there are a growing number of reputable vendors who provide guarantees and warranties that match a new model.

Businesses have also realised that it is more efficient to focus on accessing the right technology, rather than outright owning it. Flexible consumption models are growing in popularity, as it eases the pressure on organisations to acquire IT assets. Dugand also believes in the power of new consumption models. He states, “the reality is that organisations can now address IT inefficiencies and achieve higher levels of utilisation through metering and monitoring tools that can provide valuable insights into the efficiency of deployed systems and equipment.” Having this insight allows businesses to understand, and therefore maximise the lifecycle of their IT assets.

Government regulation is another important factor, as it can help change overprovisioning from a production standpoint and hold manufacturers responsible. Many IT manufacturers make older models obsolete with device upgrades or newer models. Helping introduce legislation that encourages manufacturers and sellers to recollect old devices would be a big improvement. This is a concept already being adopted in other industries, as seen by car manufacturers recycling old parts, makeup brands offering discounts to consumers recycling empty products, and companies like IKEA collecting and refurbishing old furniture.

The business and environmental case for properly managing e-waste is here, now it’s up to enterprises themselves to improve their sustainability best practices.