In today’s digital age, the amount of data generated daily is staggering. The world’s largest technology companies, also known as Big Tech (think Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others), are responsible for most of this data storage. Yet despite the growing demand for storage solutions, these same companies are shredding millions of storage devices that could be reused. This raises the question: Why are large technology companies shredding perfectly good storage devices instead of reusing or recycling them?
First, when you send an email, update a Google document, or take a photo, the data generated in the process is not stored in a “cloud”. It accumulates across several of the world’s estimated 70 million servers, each of which is a steel enclosure about the size of an old-school desktop PC made up of precious metals, minerals, and plastics. These servers contain multiple data storage devices and are located in the world’s 8,000 data centers ranging from around 100,000 square feet to over 10 million square feet. When companies decide to upgrade their equipment (typically every three to five years), the data stores are routinely destroyed.
Security concerns are one of the main reasons for the physical destruction of devices. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon manage vast amounts of sensitive data and have strict protocols in place to ensure that this data is always protected. When storage devices reach end-of-life or are no longer needed, these companies often choose to destroy them in the mistaken belief that physical destruction is safer than data erasure.
Securely destroying data is especially important when you consider that companies worldwide are affected by data breaches and cyberattacks. For example, Morgan Stanley, an American multinational investment management and financial services company, was recently fined $35 million for failing to protect sensitive customer data. The company hired by the bank to decommission the old servers and hard drives didn’t properly erase the data before reselling the equipment. While the incident was due to the devices not being wiped before resale, the bank now requires that every device with data on it be destroyed – most of them on-site.
Companies often disregard data erasure and choose the “quick and dirty” option of physically destroying data from legacy products. It may seem more secure, but data sanitization is just as effective as old methods of destroying data. Data sanitization also allows for more thorough and secure reporting and documentation for auditing purposes. Felice Alfieri, a European Commission official who co-authored a paper on the environmental sustainability of data centers, advocates “data erasure” over drive shredding and says, “From a data security perspective, you do not need to shred.”
Another factor contributing to the shredding of storage devices is cost. While it may seem counterintuitive to shred perfectly functional hardware, it can appear cheaper and easier for large technology companies to destroy and replace devices rather than refurbish or reuse them. However, for SMEs and even large companies, the resale value of devices can adequately offset erasure costs and save time – a sanitized hard drive can be back in service practically overnight. It’s also more sustainable, which helps companies to reach ESG targets, reducing capital costs and improving the firm’s valuation. A sanitized, refurbished, and reused device produces less waste than one that’s destroyed, even if destroying it means shredding and recovering its materials. It takes several more processing stages to manufacture crushed materials into new goods, requiring more energy and producing more emissions and waste.
The pace of technological advancement means that storage devices quickly become obsolete, and it may not make sense for organizations to hold on to outdated hardware. Newer technologies are often faster, more efficient, and more secure than older ones, so it’s in the best interest of businesses to keep up with the latest developments in storage technology. Even if a storage device is still working fine, it may not be worth keeping it if it’s incompatible with newer systems or less efficient than newer technologies. Secure data sanitization and resale can generate significant income, and help offset the cost of new tech.
It’s worth noting, however, that some major technology companies are making efforts to recycle or reuse their storage devices when possible. Apple, for example, has a program called Apple Renew that allows customers to recycle their old Apple devices, including storage devices. Google is also making efforts to recycle its old servers and data center equipment. These initiatives are important steps toward reducing electronic waste and promoting sustainability in the technology industry.
Security concerns, cost, and technological advancement all contribute to the destruction of potentially valuable hardware. As the demand for storage solutions grows, it will be interesting to see how the tech industry evolves to meet this challenge while balancing the need for security, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability.