Western Waste: The Far Reaching Consequences of Our Electronics

A comprehensive look at the impact of creating and disposing of electronics.

With technology advancing at break-neck pace, electronic waste is piling up. Tech companies make millions off the latest, greatest tech built up by release dates and social media hype.  As a tech company, it pays to have new tech come out as often as possible to stay at the forefront of the consumer’s mind and give everyone something to talk about on social media. The consumer loves the idea of being part of this celebration and so, tech companies continue to ride the wave of hype and make sure products can be released on a regular basis.  The problem is the creation of all of this new technology and the electronic waste created is putting a strain on resources and the by-products of these processes are poisoning the environment. The lifespan of a CPU was 4-6 years in 1997, in 2005 the lifespan was 2 years. Seems counter-intuitive, right? With technology getting better it should last longer.  Not if you are a tech company and you want to make sure you can release the next thing within a year. Welcome to Western consumerism. 

To create 1 ton of laptops, 10 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere.  By 2040, carbon emission from the production of electronics will reach 14% of total world-wide emission.  This includes mining the raw materials for the technology, as well as, the actual manufacturing process.  Electronics contain sixty or more elements in various compounds, including precious metals, such as gold, copper and nickel, as well as rare Earth elements, such as indium and palladium.  The creation of electronics and the improper recycling of them, is resulting in a significant loss of scarce and valuable raw materials, including neodymium, platinum, ruthenium indium (in flat screen TVs) and cobalt (batteries).   One thing must be understood about minerals; they are finite. That is to say, the materials trapped in the Earth’s crust have been there since the creation of the Earth and they are not replenished. What we have is what we have and when it is gone, it is gone. Earth is a closed system; The only thing that can come and go, and must for life to exist, is energy in the form of light and heat (think the sun).  7% of the world’s gold is in the electronics we have already created. There is 100 times more gold in a ton of mobile devices than in a ton of gold ore. Extending the life of electronics and/or harvesting the resources from them, is far more sustainable than the current system, not to mention has a larger economic benefit. Eventually there will be no more gold in Earth’s crust to mine, the only gold available to us will be in the products we have already created.  

Electronic waste is the largest growing waste stream in the world, with 50 millions tons of electronic waste being produced every year (50% of that is produced in the US and Europe).   Annually electronic waste is worth $62.5 billion, which is more than the GDP of most countries. Here’s the kicker: most of it works. It is being thrown out, because everyone wants the latest, greatest tech and everyone rushed to replace their working tech from last year.  Only 20% of the electronic waste produced is recycled properly. In the past, the Western world’s electronic waste has been shipped to developing nations around the world. This is no longer an option and so the Western world is scrambling to reevaluate our recycling programs, electronic and otherwise.  Though this is changing, large amounts of electronic waste continue to be illegally shipped to developing countries, despite its regulation under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. Once there, recycling is done in informal, crude electronic recycling facilities where women and children make up 30% of the workforce. Many studies show increases in miscarriage, still and premature births, reduced birth weights and lengths in women exposed to electronic waste.  In most low- and middle-income countries, handling and disposal of electronic waste is unregulated. 

Most electronic waste is simply land-filled.  Electronic waste does not biodegrade and is considered toxic, due to the inclusion of heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead and mercury.   These heavy metals and flame retardants leach into the soil, contaminating underlying groundwater or crops that may be planted in the soil.  Much of the soil contamination is persistent and the pollutants remain in the soil for a long time, with some reacting with other chemicals in the environment to form even more toxic compounds. As rain water passes through the contaminated soil, it picks up heavy metals and other pollutants and carries it into the water system traveling hundreds of miles.  This leads to acidification and toxification of the water, which has adverse effects on ecosystems at a level that extends far from the communities where the electronic waste is.  Most people are aware that arsenic is a poison, but most do not know it is a heavy metal. Life does not tolerate heavy metals, even in small amounts. Plants can suffer from damaged cell structure and altered metabolism which leads to reduced growth and/or death.  Lead can coat the surface of the plant, reducing photosynthesis. Animals that consume these plants also become toxic. Toxins travel up the food chain and accumulate within the animals ingesting the plants. Over time the animal accumulates enough of the toxin to kill it.  This is called bio-accumulation. The larger the animal, the more the impact because of the amount of the toxin it eats to sustain life. This causes complex disruptions to an ecosystem. Why does this matter to us? We are a large animal and we are omnivores, which means we get a significant amount of these toxins between the meat and plants we eat.  We are a part of the ecosystem (which some will find that shocking).

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319647424_A_Global_Overview_of_Exposure_Levels_and_Biological_Effects_of_Trace_Elements_in_Penguins

There is another, largely unseen, and arguably more important, consequence of electronic consumption.  The minerals in our electronic devices are being mine in conditions that are inhumane, and often financially support rebel groups and terrorist organizations at the cost of human life and dignity.  Most are familiar with “blood diamonds” thanks to the movie of the same name that showed the reality of civil war in Sierra Leone and the economic power of the resources there.  There are many countries in the world where the same scenario is playing out with many different minerals that aren’t as well known, or as sexy, as diamonds.  By buying electronics we, in the Western world, are supporting those rebel groups and terrorists organizations. While some companies, like Apple, have taken steps to verify minerals are being sourced legally and humanely, this process is slow and difficult to regulate.  Ultimately, it is up to us, as consumers, to make better choices when buying and disposing of electronics. 

A circular economy approach needs to be implemented and invested in at all levels of society, starting with you.  A circular economy is a “system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value at all times and waste is designed out of the system”.  If just the raw materials from 1.46 billion smartphones manufactured in 2017 were recycled they would be worth $11.5 billion.   A circular economy for electronics could reduce the costs for consumers by 7% by 2030 and 14% by 2040. Recycling metals is 2 to 10 times more energy efficient and cheaper than mining. That savings will ultimately trickle down to the consumer. Reducing the need for mining will also help to remove a source of funding for groups perpetuating inhumane practices by exploiting the resources and people of certain regions. The simple fact is we are struggling to find ways to deal with the waste we produce.  The practices of yesterday are no longer viable as China and other countries have banned imports of US garbage. We cannot continue to bury our trash or ship it to other countries for them to deal with, we have to re-use what we can or we will literally be up to our eyeballs in trash. The beautiful thing about this scenario is we, the consumer, ultimately guide companies. Stop and think the next time you are buying or disposing of electronics. Your choice, however small it may seem, matters.      

LEARN MORE:

https://www.npr.org/2018/03/15/594062903/how-cobalt-metal-affects-big-tech-firms-like-apple

https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/03/06/591265523/cobalt-rare-and-everywhere

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127740457

https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2019-4-july-august/feature/us-recycling-system-garbage

Data Security: What does it mean to “wipe” data and how secure is it?

Over the past several years it seems we hear about data security breaches more and more often.  It is big news when millions of peoples’ personal information is stolen. When financial institutions get hacked this is especially alarming.  Our SSN, bank account information, home address, etc. is out there in the hands of individuals that have bad intentions. But as consumers we give out our information multiple times a day, usually in ways we can’t even imagine. The truth is, most of our information is already out there.  How many passwords do you have saved on your phone and computer? If someone got your phone could they open a banking app, social media app, Nest thermostat app and be “in” without entering a password? By the way, you should not have your password saved on a banking app on your phone for this very reason.  Take the two extra minutes to enter your password. It is for this very reason that the public is overly cautious about data held on a hard drive and companies are down right paranoid about it. It seems counter intuitive to hand over your laptop or computer to a company like ACE Recycling.     

Rest assured ACE Recycling has your privacy and data security at the top of our list of priorities.  We are consumers also. We also have hard drives at home and work and understand that sensitive data is on those devices.  When ACE Recycling takes your electronic device it is never booted up.  We never go into your operating system and quite frankly, we don’t want to.  We aren’t interested in your data, we are interested in the physical hard drive itself.  The industry ACE Recycling is in is called IT Asset Disposition (ITAD). This is an entire industry created around removing data securely, which makes sense considering all the data out there that would really rock the world if it got out (think CIA).  More recently it has become central to the idea of a circular economy and is increasingly built around the idea of disposing of electronic equipment in an environmentally responsible way.  This includes ensuring toxic materials are disposed of properly, materials are recycled for reuse to reduce the need to extract more. 

Environmental Impact

Like most things, electronic disposal and creation is a multi-faceted issue with enough information and discussion to write a book on.  Electronics contain many toxic materials, such as arsenic, mercury and lead, but they also contain elements that are in themselves not harmful, but the environmental and human cost of the extraction of those materials is steep.  Three of particular importance are cobalt, neodymium and dysprosium. The latter are rare earth minerals (or rare earth materials) which means they are not found in the large seams that coal or copper are found in, and are therefore, not economically exploitable and are rare in any given area.  With the pace of mining these materials accelerating as demand for electronics increases, they are becoming more and more rare. Cobalt is of particular concern because it adversely affects not only the environment, but also the people of the regions in which it is mined . Cobalt is used for various electronics and is a conflict mineral (or conflict resource).  A conflict mineral is a natural resource extracted in a conflict zone that is mined and sold to perpetuate the fighting. ⅔ of the world’s cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Mining cobalt in the DRC is done in small, unregulated mines, where child labor is widespread. What’s more, political and ethnic dynamics of the region have resulted in violent armed conflict largely financially supported by the mining and sale of cobalt.  For every new electronic device we buy, we are in some way supporting militant groups and child labor. In addition to this human impact there is an environmental impact in creating new electronics.  To create 1 ton of laptops, 10 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere.  By 2040, carbon emission from the production of electronics will reach 14% of total world-wide emission. There is 100 times more gold in a ton of mobile devices than in a ton of gold ore.  Extending the life of electronics and/or harvesting the resources from them, is far more sustainable than the current system of simply throwing it away, not to mention has a larger economic benefit.

Laws and Standards

Several data protection laws are in place at the Federal level.  The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects your health information.  The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student education records. The Wiretap Act and the Electronic Communication Privacy Act (ECPA) protect your communications (electronic or on “landlines”).  Each state has laws in place to protect data at the individual and business level as well. In addition to laws The Department of Defense, National Security Agency, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and various other institutions directly concerned with data security, have data destruction standards and policies. However the NIST report Guidelines for Media Sanitization is widely considered to be the go-to industry standard for data erasure.  

Techniques for Data Sanitization/Wiping

Media sanitization/data erasure/data wiping are all the same name for the process of making data on a device unable to be retrieved. The NIST report defines three categories of sanitization: Clear, Purge and Destroy.  Clear is defined as, “logical techniques applied to sanitize data in all user-addressable storage locations for protection against simple non-invasive data recovery techniques”. Simply put, restoring your device to factory settings or using on-device standard Read and Write commands would constitute clearing your data.  These techniques can be applied by the average consumer, perhaps with a little help. Purge is defined as, “physical or logical techniques that render the Target Data recovery infeasible using state of the art laboratory techniques.” This is what ACE Recycling does through a process explained below. Destroy “renders the Target Data recovery infeasible using state of the art laboratory techniques and results in the subsequent inability to use the media for the storage of data.”  The storage device is physically destroyed and cannot be reused.

How it Works

Imagine a book.  Now imagine erasing every word from the book and writing over the pages with random letters.  This is what is done to a hard drive. The hard drive is “overwritten” with random 1s and 0s (computer language). One overwriting pass “hinders recovery of data even if state of the art laboratory techniques are applied to attempt to retrieve the data”; however, most programs use multiple passes.  The number of passes has become unnecessary with the inclusion of a “verify pass”, that scans for verification of data removal by selecting random places on the device to “check” the data is overwritten. According to the National Security Agency data wiped using these standards is “permanently destroyed as to make any type of forensic data recovery impossible”.  Complete data erasure destroys all data, including operating systems. Thus, the data on the hard drive is never accessed during the wiping process. ACE Recycling adheres to Department of Defense and HIPAA specifications for data erasure the foundation of which is the NIST report. This is a three-pass overwrite with verification, completed by the software itself.  This verification comes in the form of a serialized print out of all devices that were subject to the sanitization process and acts to, well, verify that the devices were successfully wiped. According to the NIST report, “verifying the selected information sanitization and disposal process is an essential step in maintaining confidentiality.”   In addition to the software verifying the effective wipe of your data, we verify ourselves. This is done by taking a random sampling of the devices that have gone through the sanitization process and hooking them up to a computer to verify they are completely erased.

ACE Recycling Data Security

What is Best for your Organization?

The best way to answer this is to consider the level of confidentiality of the information on the device.  In general if the device is leaving the organization’s control, as it would be if you are having ACE Recycling disposition it for you, it should be purged and validated.  Both of which ACE Recycling does. Clear should only be used if the device is remaining within the organization and even then there are risks involved. Data wiping offers an alternative to physical destruction, allowing the hard drive to be reused, reducing electronic waste and carbon emissions. The NIST report clearly states that “organizations should consider environmental factors” when disposing of electronic waste. For most companies, purge “may be more appropriate than Destroy when factoring in environmental concerns…”  In general, the destroy option should be used if the drive is not functioning or cannot be wiped. According to the NIST report, “The application of Destructive techniques may be the only option when media fails…other clear or purge techniques cannot be effectively applied…or when verification of Clear or Purge methods fails”. This is what ACE Recycling adheres to. Purge and Destroy achieve the same outcome with regard to data protection. The main difference is the hard drive is taken out of the circular model when it is destroyed. In a true circular economy items would be reused, refurbished, repaired, or consumption reduced, prior to the last resort of destruction. 

In this way ACE Recycling is meeting our commitment to contribute to the circular economy for the future of our planet by reusing as many materials as possible, while keeping your data secure.

More Information:

On Conflict Minerals-

http://conflictminerals.org/

https://enoughproject.org/special-topics/progress-and-challenges-conflict-minerals-facts-dodd-frank-1502

On Data Erasure-

https://www.esd.whs.mil/Portals/54/Documents/DD/issuances/dodm/522022M.pdf

https://web.archive.org/web/20160320074045/https://www.nsa.gov/ia/_files/government/MDG/NSA_CSS_Storage_Device_Declassification_Manual.pdf

#Circulareconomy

We are all used to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. #reducereuserecycle But to create a truly circular economy, we need to add refurbish, reinvent and repair. ACE Recycling is committed to helping you with every aspect of a #circulareconomy.  

#Reduce – buy less, but also, buy what can be reused.  Our linear economy is based on single use – buy, use, throw way.  The linear model is not #sustainable. One small thing I did was to buy #reusable straws.  

#Reuse – aim for #multipleuse products. I also shop with cloth bags.

#Recycle – #ACERecycling has recycle bins EVERYWHERE!  We are constantly looks for #partnerships to offer more options for recycling more materials.  We currently have a partnership with @resinate for pill bottles and dispensary bottles.  We welcome these partnerships, because our goal is to #keepitoutoflandfills

#Refurbish – our #ITexperts can take two non-working devices and get at least one working again! Electronics are surprisingly easy to up-grade, most people however are intimidated by it.  WE AREN’T!! 

#Repair – think your laptop is a goner? It might not be – bring it to us! AZ Complete PCI can fix just about anything!

#Reinvent – this one is REALLY FUN!  Here are just a few ideas: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=crafts+with+old+keyboards

The Circular Economy Vision
A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot