Spike in remote work and security concerns drive surging global e-waste

Despite CSR policies, less than a quarter of corporate e-waste is recycled

A record 53.6 million tons of hazardous electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in just five years, according to the latest UN stats. Unfortunately, the pandemic has only compounded the e-waste issue. COVID-19 has triggered a massive spike in the demand for laptops, PCs, mobile phones and other technology, with millions of workers being ordered to work from home.

According to our latest study, produced with business-to-business research firm Coleman Parkes, nearly all of the 600 global enterprises we surveyed (97%) had to purchase new IT equipment, such as laptops, to accommodate the shift to remote working. But while nine out of 10 of the world’s largest companies have corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies for dealing with end-of-life equipment, less than a quarter of that equipment is recycled. Clearly, the time has come for the global business community to make changes in its approach to electronic waste.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has called for a “global reboot” to close the loop on the coming e-waste tsunami and replace our current “take, make and dispose” economic model with a circular one. Environmental regulations play a critical role but are often non-existent, patchworked, poorly enforced or difficult to fulfill. Canada doesn’t have federal legislation directed specifically at managing e-waste, so each province has its own e-waste collection and recycling requirements. In many provinces, producers have collectively shared responsibility and have not been held to legally enforceable targets, which weakens the incentive for these producers to take action to reduce e-waste or redesign products.

This progress is welcome news, but there’s more to consider for regulators. WEF’s report notes that “worries about data security mean there are vast tranches of residual electronics sitting in … offices across the globe.” Having surveyed 1,850 global organizations earlier this year, we found that 52% believe physically destroying IT equipment is the most secure method for preventing sensitive data from being used for malicious purposes.

Privacy regulations in Canada, Europe and the U.S. mandate that businesses are responsible for protecting the private information of their customers. Businesses retain responsibility for protecting sensitive data until the moment it’s permanently removed from equipment, including devices taken offsite to be recycled. Regulations don’t, however, direct companies on how to keep sensitive data out of the reach of bad actors. Strict chain-of-custody guidelines could help ensure data has been securely sanitized before items are reused and provide a secure audit trail.

At this point, under regional privacy regulations in a handful of Canadian provinces, companies are tasked with employing people to oversee and take responsibility for data privacy. Among other responsibilities, privacy officers are largely charged with identifying and documenting the risks of no-longer-used equipment and are the “go to” experts for questions or concerns about security, compliance, audit trails and other issues that may arise. These responsibilities should be spelled out by companies’ own CSR policies; however, implementation of these policies can be vague and poorly communicated.

We still have a long way to go when it comes to making sure e-waste regulation and corporate environmental policy effectively mitigate e-waste in our landfills. As the world adjusts to the complications of millions of newly remote employees struggling through a pandemic and its aftermath, tackling data security concerns will be critical to helping companies be good corporate citizens while protecting the health of the planet.


Alan Bentley is president of global strategy at Blancco Technology Group, a global data erasure and mobile device diagnostics software company. Blancco's software focuses on improving enterprise security posture and ensuring compliance with local and global data privacy requirements.

This article is “sponsored content” as defined by Corporate Knights’ content disclosure policy.

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