Waste and national security
An often overlooked but important aspect of our industry is the role that poor waste management practices have on national security interests. As General Joseph Votel, President and CEO of Business Executives for National Security (BENS) noted, “As environmental, social, and governance (ESG) challenges become increasingly significant factors for our national security, I am confident that the private sector is well-positioned to face these issues head on.”
For instance, waste mismanagement can exacerbate regional water shortages and create water stress, a significant cause of conflict globally. Intentional dumping of dangerous or hazardous waste can despoil natural resources, including fisheries and arable land, for generations. According to the United Nations, approximately 50 million tons of electronic waste are produced each year—the same weight as all commercial aircraft ever built.4 Much of this waste is sent to developing Asian and African countries, often through illegal smuggling or dumping. The quasi “recycling” process of the illegally dumped waste—using open fires to burn plastic off valuable metals—has devastating effects on the health of local populations and the environment.
Electronic waste, if poorly handled, can also contribute to the rise of identity theft and economic crime, not to mention security lapses. In 2020, the Identity Theft Resource Center identified 78 “physical attack” data compromises—14 percent of which were from improper disposal of electronic waste.5 In addition, the U.S. military has found that it has purchased hardware that was supposedly sourced from new materials, but which actually included recycled electronics—a risk of immense proportions, since counterfeit or damaged materials can compromise the effectiveness of electronic systems.6 One possible solution to this is outlawing export dumping of electronic waste, which would significantly curtail the waste from ending up in the hands of our adversaries. Leading electronic waste certification bodies such as the Responsible Recycling (R2) Standard, and e-Stewards, created by Basal Action Network (BAN), play a key role in ensuring the safe and secure recycling of this material stream. We must prioritize circularity in our electronic waste when possible, while also building supply chains that guarantee new materials when necessary.
As environmental, social, and governance (ESG) challenges become increasingly significant factors for our national security, I am confident that the private sector is well-positioned to face these issues head on.