This is a blog on the work of the Value Recovery From Used Electronics Project, organized by iNEMI (the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative). The focus of this project is to move towards a more circular economy for hard disk drives (HDDs), with the ultimate goal of “making hard drives from hard drives”. This article is based upon materials from the iNEMI Value Recovery Committee. Here we talk about the value recovery from hard disk drives.
There is increasing pressure worldwide for societal transformation from a linear economy – based on the traditional take-make-waste model – to a circular economy. The expanding worldwide demand for electronics – and specifically, for data storage – is increasing opportunity for the electronics industry, while also increasing resource consumption. The most successful companies will modify their business practices consistent with circular economy principals. To date, some individual companies in the electronics industry have taken this direction, but as a whole, the industry has not undertaken the business-model-level initiatives that are key for a serious transition to a circular economy.
There are three major reason why HDDs are a good candidate for a circular economy: (1) the demand for data storage is increasing rapidly; (2) data storage demand is increasing significantly faster than increases in HDD storage density, and (3) industry output of HDDs (manufacturing capacity) is not expected to increase significantly, according to industry projections. This leads to a potential gap between estimated data storage needs and the estimated ability of HDD and SSD manufacturers to keep up with demand. There are a number of ways to fill this gap: continued investment in fabs and technologies to increase HDD and SDD storage, increase HDD reliability, and increase the reuse of used HDDs so that they are available to meet some of our global data storage needs.
Phase 1 of this project identified stakeholder groups and new technologies necessary to circularize the HDD economy. Phase II of this project, currently underway, is working to demonstrate the feasibility of this goal by using system modeling, case studies, and pilot projects to measure economic and environmental impact of various reuse and recycling options. The team, consisting of industry leaders in the HDD economy, are committed to establishing a blueprint for HDD collection, processing, reuse, and recovery (with a special focus on rare earth magnets).
The secondary market for HDDs has responded to these increasing data storage demands and, indeed, IT asset management firms process millions of HDDs per year; however, limitations in recovery due to perceived security risks, technological challenges in HDD separation, and lack of coordination of stakeholders have led to a loss of value. In fact, some existing practices severely impede the overall value recovered from the products across the reverse chain of commerce. In particular, consider two examples:
Data destruction demands by the last user, which are not always essential to meet justified data security needs, lead to wholesale HDD shredding, which precludes reuse and reduces material recovery options.
Shredding of the HDDs by pre-processors, before any disassembly and while still embodied in the product, which is done for the purpose of bulk material recovery (e.g. aluminum, ferrous metals, and gold), precludes reuse and can reduce recovery of trace, but highly valuable, materials (e.g. rare earth metals).
Each of these downstream steps in the value recovery system is also limited by HDD collection efficiencies. Collection of consumer HDDs is very low, corresponding to the generally low collection rates for consumer electronics in the U.S. (26%). Commercial HDD collection is very efficient (90%) and it is estimated that there are 19- to 24 million HDDs available for value recovery form North American data centers alone.
More value can be realized and environmental and health impacts can be reduced if the HDD community and its stakeholders work together to implement an integrated, circular value recovery system that includes optimized product design, life extension, reuse, refurbishment and material recovery, and the processes required to enable it. Value recovery depends on knowledge of the markets, ability to refresh units via reuse, remanufacturing, and cascading the units through a longer cycle of usability. Identification and documentation of best design practices and process flows will maximize the value of recovered HDDs, parts and materials.
Optimizing the decision points for collaborating stakeholders in the HDD economy is estimated to increase the value of used HDDs by more than a factor of 10x compared to materials recovery by shredding, separation, and smelting.
The iNEMI collaborative has brought together key players in the HDD economy. This includes a major HDD OEM (Seagate), OEMs of electronics containing HDDs (Cisco), large data center users (Google, Microsoft), IT asset management companies (Teleplan, Geodis, Cascade Asset Management), metals recyclers (Urban Mining, Momentum Technologies), major research institutions (Oak Ridge National Lab, Ames National Lab, Idaho National Lab, the DOD Critical Materials Institute, Purdue University), and an electronics sustainability and ecolabeling organization (Green Electronics Council).
To achieve the goal of a Hard disk drives circular economy, new business models must be established, thus collaboration along the value recovery supply chain is vital. Elinor Ostrom, Nobel prize-winning economist, described a set of conditions that are likely to result in the sustainable management of a common pool resource (in this case, HDDs). Some of the factors that are critical for success in self-governed systems are the size and importance of the resource, common values and norms amongst stakeholders, leadership/entrepreneurship, and trust among participants.
Reuse of a hard drive in its original form or in a slightly modified form is the best economic and environmental outcome. All environmental impact factors, from carbon footprint to toxicity, are lower for reusing rather than replacing hard disk drives, even when material recovery of used HDDs is factored in.