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Across the globe there are some 23,000 data centres, high-security warehouses that store computer systems, applications, and data. They hold an estimated 70mn servers, each of which contains several data-storing devices, usually hard drives. As the world makes attempts to pursue net-zero targets, these data centres consume serious amounts of electricity, around 1 per cent of total global demand.
They also generate significant amounts of electronic waste. Part of the problem is that when companies decide they want to upgrade their equipment, which usually happens every three to five years, these hard drives are routinely shredded. The reason is that companies fear that data could leak, triggering fury from customers and huge fines from regulators.
Although widely recycled after shredding, this only recovers about 70 per cent of a drive's materials. And important substances, such as neodymium and dysprosium, nickel, and palladium are often not retrieved. Demand for such materials is projected to grow as the world electrifies itself away from fossil fuels. And every speck lost requires more to be mined, often from areas of the world embroiled in conflict.
But a growing chorus of critics say there is a better option to safely dispose of data using computer software to securely wipe the devices before selling them on the secondary market. Though most of the major data centre groups shred their hard drives, some key players are taking steps towards reuse. Google says 27 per cent of the components it used in server upgrades in 2021 were refurbished inventory and that it overwrites data on its hard drives for reuse where possible.
Microsoft says more than 80 per cent of its decommissioned assets will be repurposed by 2024. For hard drive specifically, though, shredding remains the norm because, despite assurances from industry experts that verified wiping software is safe, the risk of data loss is still seen as outweighing the potential benefits. But the issue will not go away, nor will the pressure e-waste places on the environment. Another 700 data centres are set to be built around the world over the next three years, contributing to an estimated 75mn tonnes of total annual e-waste by 2030, almost double 2014's figure.