Mismanagement, not spending, fuels the IT e-waste crisis


Growing businesses often rush to upgrade hardware, leading to stockpiles of unused computers, routers, and other IT assets. This practice can be a bad business strategy that worsens safety and environmental concerns.

In the 2023 IT Management Survey conducted by software and IT services company Capterra, data from 500 IT professionals in US small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) showed that nearly a third (29%) engaged in improper IT hardware disposal practices.

Research shows that SMBs typically keep old computers in storage for 2.7 years and grapple with what to do with them. Even in the era of hybrid and remote work, the hardware pile-up remains a huge part of the ongoing transformation of technology.

Key findings from Captera's report show that most organizations recycle (80%), repurpose (65%), remarket (62%), or donate (54%) at least some of their IT hardware assets. However, many others resort to improper disposal which has a negative impact on the environment.

IT hardware devices often contain toxic chemicals that make them unsuitable for landfills or incinerators. These harmful substances are potentially destructive to the environment and humans.

"Improper IT asset disposal has serious environmental, legal and regulatory implications, and businesses should therefore prioritize responsible disposal processes," suggested Jack Capers, senior security analyst at Capterra.

Disorder Drives IT Hardware Dumping Disarray

The ability to organize and stage IT assets for disposal is a critical factor in whether companies use proper or improper disposal practices.

does not cost Disorder – not cost – drives irresponsible behavior practices. Lack of organization Improper disposal of assets is a challenge for 62% of SMBs, compared to 42% of responsible disposers. Many simply throw away used hardware. The research shows that companies engaging in irresponsible behavior practices are more likely to upgrade or replace hardware to scale their workforce, avoid obsolescence, and keep up with the competition.

Along the same lines, irresponsible disposers are significantly less likely to reuse old devices (54%) than responsible disposers (69%). Irresponsible disposers have less total hardware resources but are more likely to lose track. According to the report, companies that dispose of their old hardware more responsibly tend to have fewer years in business.

Organizations often default to on-site storage or commercial trashing due to limited awareness of e-waste regulations and realization of benefits. While the report emphasizes that disorder, not cost, is the primary driver of irresponsible behavior practices, Mark N. Vena, CEO and principal analyst at SmartTech Research, counters that cost also plays a role.

Also, concerns about data protection and potential breaches have prompted reluctance to adopt new settlement methods. Cost considerations, lack of clear incentives for sustainable practices and absence of standardized processes also contribute," he told Filtps.

Responsible versus irresponsible computer equipment replacement

Understanding cost considerations sets the stage for a deeper inquiry into what separates responsible from irresponsible hardware disposal. Captera's researchers have looked at the different ways companies struggle with organizing and staging their disposable assets. A notable finding was that environmental impact is an important concern. Interestingly, this concern appears to be motivated more by guilt than altruism.

For example, companies that dispose of unwanted computer equipment must often verify a chain of custody, as industry regulations often require. It offers a more challenging task for those organizations with organizing and staging issues. On the other hand, both groups share similar struggles with responsible disposal costs and finding reputable e-waste vendors. So irresponsible settlement practices cannot be blamed for either issue as both groups face them equally, according to the report.

Rather, these two topics revolve around companies deciding to take an easy – albeit illegal – way to clear out their cluttered hardware storage closets. According to Captera, the other side of the puzzle finds companies in disarray in favor of proper IT asset allocation processes for several years.

The problem of IT hardware disposal is growing exponentially, Vena noted. Technological advancements shorten the lifespan of hardware, so the number of discarded devices is increasing. Balancing sustainable disposal practices, data protection and compliance with increasing regulations has become critical for organizations, governments and society to address growing environmental and cyber security concerns,” he warned.

Experiencing costly consequences

According to Captera, deciding to recycle IT assets is only the first step. Companies still need to ensure that they complete the handoff correctly. Aside from environmental damage, irresponsible disposal of IT assets can lead to serious security and legal issues. Some states have strict rules about throwing away certain IT equipment and not securing their digital content.

In the US, some states slap criminals with stiff penalties for violating local and federal privacy laws. Europe strictly enforces similar regulations. Also, in the US, businesses must contend with industry regulations such as HIPAA, GLBA, and PCI-DSS. All of these govern the specific handling of sensitive data when IT hardware is decommissioned.

Companies must be responsible when selecting an established e-waste contractor with a proven compliance record with responsible data destruction and e-waste standards. Additionally, businesses should consider recycling programs offered by the manufacturer or retailer from which they purchase their equipment.

Some companies prioritize cost-efficiency and convenience. Others may lack awareness of the potential environmental and security risks associated with improper disposal, observed Ron Edgerson, senior application security consultant at cybersecurity advisory services firm CoalfireThe complexity of responsible disposal methods, such as e-waste recycling or hazardous material treatment, can discourage companies from adopting them," he told filtps.

Collect and Dispose’ Scams Hamper Efforts

SMBs can easily fall for settlement scams, Captera's report warns. Companies that collect money by promising secure settlement are very common. Instead, they ship the garbage overseas or dump the hardware in poorly regulated landfills.

Edderson added that the lack of acceptable disposal strategies exacerbates the IT disposal problem, significantly affecting both the environment and data security. As awareness of these issues grows, the importance of adopting sustainable and secure IT hardware disposal methods becomes paramount to minimize the potential consequences of this growing problem," he said. 

Vena suggested that organizations can opt for certified data deletion services and employ techniques such as degaussing or shading to ensure data elimination. Collaborating with e-waste recyclers that comply with legal frameworks and offer secure data disposal. This balance between sustainable disposal practices and data security is essential for businesses navigating the modern compliance landscape," he said.

Effective alternatives exist

SMBs and large enterprises have a variety of choices for disposing of enterprise-grade IT hardware other than on-site storage or commercial trashing, continued Egerson. Recycling and refurbishing are environmentally friendly methods of extending the life of equipment. Donating to non-profit organizations, schools or communities in need is another viable option.

Choosing IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) companies that specialize in secure data deletion and environmentally friendly disposal methods, can give peace of mind while following legal and ethical norms,” he recommended. These choices don't just handle hardware disposal issues. They also adhere to sustainability practices and data security standards, leading to more responsible IT lifecycle management, Ederson noted.

Need for step-by-step regulation and enforcement

Given that about one-third of companies don't sell or donate their discarded IT hardware, better enforcement and controls are probably the best solution, Vena and Egerson agree. This can encourage companies to adopt more responsible practices. This could ultimately address both environmental concerns and data security issues associated with improper disposal of enterprise-grade IT hardware,” Vena suggested.

Edgerson sees a holistic approach involving enforcement and adequate control as an effective solution. While enforcement tools are important in guaranteeing compliance, clear and well-defined laws lay the foundation for enterprises to practice responsible disposal. By combining effective enforcement, awareness programs and compliance incentives, companies and the environment can benefit from a more sustainable and environmentally conscious approach to managing abandoned hardware and waste," he said.

Industrial regulation alone is not enough

Enhancing compliance support through cross-industry initiatives alone is unlikely to be sufficient. Self-regulation efforts across sectors lack standardization, and different industries have different levels of authority when implementing hardware management guidelines. Some sectors, such as healthcare and finance, face stricter regulations due to sensitive data concerns. In contrast, industries with less regulatory oversight may have more flexibility," Ederson explained. "However, industry-led initiatives and standards are emerging as environmental and data security awareness grows.

Industries can influence their members. But comprehensive and consistent regulations from government agencies are crucial to ensure responsible and uniform hardware disposal practices across the sector, he concludes.

Vena agreed that strengthening state and federal settlement rules could indeed be an effective solution. This could ultimately address both environmental concerns and data security issues associated with improper disposal of enterprise-grade IT hardware,” he said.

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