Western Waste: The Far Reaching Consequences of Our Electronic Waste

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

With technology advancing at a break-neck pace, electronic waste is piling up. Tech companies make millions off the latest, most excellent tech built up by release dates and social media hype.  As a tech company, it pays to have new technology come out as often as possible to stay at the forefront of the consumer’s mind. The consumer loves the idea of being part of this celebration. Tech companies continue to ride the wave of hype and make sure products are released regularly.  To accomplish this, tech is made to be replaced. The lifespan of a CPU was 4-6 years in 1997; in 2005, the lifespan was two 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. The problem is the creation of all of this new technology, and the electronic waste created is putting a strain on resources. The by-products of these processes are poisoning the environment.

The Ingredients of Electronics

Ten tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere to create 1 ton of laptops.  By 2040, carbon emission from the production of electronics will reach 14% of total worldwide emissions.  These emissions include mining the raw materials for the technology, as well as the actual manufacturing process.  Our electronics contain sixty or more elements in various compounds. Within your computer or phone, you will find precious metals, such as gold, copper, and nickel. Also, there are rare earth elements, like indium and palladium.  The creation of electronics and the improper disposal of them is resulting in a significant loss of scarce and valuable raw materials. Some of the raw materials that are becoming scare are neodymium, platinum, ruthenium indium (in flat-screen TVs), and cobalt (batteries).  

Running Out of Ingredients

It is essential to understand mineral amounts are finite. In other words, their quantities are limited. 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 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 or harvesting the resources from them is far more sustainable than the current system, not to mention it has a more substantial economic benefit. Eventually, there will be no more gold in Earth’s crust to mine. In the end, the only gold available to us will be in the products we have already created.  

Electronic Waste

Electronic waste is the most significant growing waste stream in the world. Every year, there are 50 million tons of electronic waste produced, with 50% of that originating 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. Electronic waste is increasing because everyone wants the latest, greatest tech. Everyone rushed to replace their working tech from last year and got rid of a device that functions perfectly.  Unfortunately, only 20% of the electronic waste produced is recycled properly.

Shipping Our Problem Elsewhere

In the past, the Western world’s solution for electronic waste has been to ship it to developing nations around the world. However, this is no longer an option. Consequently, the Western world is now scrambling to reevaluate our recycling programs, electronic and otherwise.  Despite its regulation under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, electronic waste is still illegally shipped to places like Africa, India, and China. Once there, processing takes place in informal, crude 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. 

Electronic Waste and the Environment

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 and underlying groundwater. Much of the soil contamination is persistent, and the pollutants remain in the land for a long time. While there, toxins are reacting with other chemicals in the environment to form new, even more toxic compounds. As rainwater passes through the contaminated soil, it picks up heavy metals and other pollutants and carries it into the water system traveling hundreds of miles.  As a result, the water becomes acidic and toxic. Not surprisingly, there are adverse effects on ecosystems at a level that extends far from the communities where the electronic waste is. 

Bio-Accumulation

Most people are aware that arsenic is a poison, but most do not know it is a heavy metal. Life does not tolerate even small amounts of heavy metals. Plants exposed to heavy metals suffer from damaged cell structure and altered metabolism, which leads to reduced growth or death. Animals that consume these plants also become toxic. Toxins travel up the food chain and accumulate within the animals. Over time the animal accumulates enough of the poison to kill it.  This process is called bio-accumulation. The larger the animal, the more the impact because of the amount of the toxin it eats to sustain life. Bio-accumulation leads to highly complex disruptions to an ecosystem. Why does this matter to us? We are a part of the ecosystem. As a large animal, we get a significant amount of these toxins between the meat and plants we eat. 

The Far Reach of Our Electronics

There is another, mostly unseen, and arguably more important, consequence of our electronics.  Across the world, inhumane conditions dominate the mines that pull the raw materials for our electronics. The money made from the mines often financially supports rebel groups and terrorist organizations. The actual cost of our electronics is human life and dignity. 

Most are familiar with “blood diamonds,” thanks to the movie of the same name. The film 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. Those minerals aren’t as well known or as sexy as diamonds. Therefore, the situation of the people most affected goes unseen.  By buying electronics, we, in the Western world, are supporting those rebel groups and terrorist organizations. While some companies, like Apple, have taken steps to verify minerals come from illegal and human mines, this process is slow and challenging to regulate.  Ultimately, it is up to us, as consumers, to make better choices when buying and disposing of electronics. 

The Circular Economy Approach

The most effective solution is a circular economy approach. Nations need to implement and invest in the circular model at all levels of society.  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 the 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.

Most importantly, reducing the need for mining will help to remove a source of funding for groups perpetuating inhumane practices. Without the promise of money and power, the exploitation of the resources and people of specific regions will be less attractive.

The Power of the Consumer

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 be up to our eyeballs in waste. 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. When financial institutions get hacked, this is especially alarming.  Our SSN, bank account information, home address, etc. are 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.

What ACE Recycling Does

The industry ACE Recycling is in is called IT Asset Disposition (ITAD). This industry is created around removing data securely, which makes sense considering all the data out there that would rock the world if it got out (think CIA).  More recently, it has become central to the idea of a circular economy and the purpose of disposing of electronic equipment in an environmentally responsible way.  Ensuring toxic materials are disposed of properly, materials are recycled for reuse to reduce the need to extract more is all part of ITAD. 

Environmental Impact

Like most things, electronic disposal and creation is a multi-faceted issue with enough information to write a book on.  Electronics contain many toxic materials, such as arsenic, mercury, and lead. 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. These are minerals found sporadically within the Earth, as opposed to being found in large seams like coal or copper. Therefore, they 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 rarer and rarer.

The Human Impact

Cobalt is of particular concern because of the widespread exploitation of the people and the environment surrounding the mines. 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. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) harbors ⅔ of the world’s cobalt. Many mines in the DRC are small and unregulated, where child labor is widespread. What’s more, the political and ethnic dynamics of the region have resulted in violent armed conflict. This conflict is mostly 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 cost, there is an environmental cost in creating new electronics.  Ten tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere to produce 1 ton of laptops.  By 2040, carbon emission from the production of electronics will reach 14% of total worldwide emissions. There is 100 times more gold in a ton of mobile devices than in a ton of gold ore.  Extending the life of electronics or harvesting the resources from them is far more sustainable than the current system. Not to mention has a more significant economic benefit then throwing them away.

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, while The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student education records. The Wiretap Act and the Electronic Communication Privacy Act (ECPA) protects 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 statutes, 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 go-to industry standard for data erasure is the NIST report Guidelines for Media Sanitization.

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.  Clearing data is “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. Purging is “physical or logical techniques that render the Target Data recovery infeasible using state of the art laboratory techniques.” Purging data 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.”  Physical destruction is the result here, removing the device from circulation.

What Wiping Data Means

Imagine a book.  Now imagine erasing every word from the book and writing over the pages with random letters.  If you think of the data stored on a hard drive like the pages of that book, you get an idea of data erasure. 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.” The verify pass scans for verification of data removal by selecting random places on the device to “check” for overwriting. 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. Your hard drive is never booted. Thus, there is no access to data during the wiping process.

ACE Recycling’s Data Security Procedure

ACE Recycling adheres to the Department of Defense and HIPAA specifications for data erasure, the foundation of which is the NIST report. We use a three-pass overwrite with verification, completed using software.  This verification comes in the form of a serialized print out of devices subject to the sanitization process. 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 sufficient wipe of your data, we check ourselves. ACE Recycling takes a random sampling of the devices that have gone through the sanitization process.

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 have ACE Recycling disposition it for you, it should be purged and validated.  Both of which ACE Recycling does. Clear should only be an option if the device is remaining within the organization. Data wiping offers an alternative to physical destruction, allowing the hard drive to remain in circulation, 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…” 

When to DESTROY

In general, destroy is an option only if the drive is not functioning or physically cannot go through the purge process. 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”. ACE Recycling adheres to this statement. Purge and Destroy achieve the same outcome concerning data protection. The main difference is the hard drive is taken out of the circular model when destroyed. In a genuine circular economy, items would be reused, refurbished, repaired, or consumption reduced, before the last resort of destruction. 

ACE Recycling is committed to the security of your data and a circular economy. The NIST Report outlines a path to achieve both. With a focus on reusing as many materials as possible, we are helping to lower technology costs, reduce environmental impacts, and make technology accessible to all.

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