The following is excerpted from “Value Recovery from Hard Disk Drives,” published by on July 13, 2018.

Creating a circular economy

There is increasing pressure worldwide for societal transformation from a linear economy — based on the traditional take-make-waste model — to a circular economy. While some individual companies in the electronics industry have taken this direction, the industry as a whole has not undertaken the business-model-level initiatives that are key for a serious transition to a circular economy.

Circular_economyHard disk drives (HDDs) are good candidates for making the transition to a circular economy (see figure). The demand for data storage is increasing significantly faster than increases in HDD storage density and reliability while output of HDDs (manufacturing capacity) is not expected to increase significantly. This leads to a potential gap between estimated data storage needs and the estimated ability of HDD manufacturers to keep up with demand. Continued investment in fabs and technologies to increase HDD storage and reliability can address this gap, but increased reuse of used HDDs offers many advantages in helping to meet global data storage needs.

iNEMI's Value Recovery Project is committed to establishing a blueprint for HDD collection, processing, reuse, and recovery (with a special focus on rare earth magnets). The team is focused on two primary goals: (1) to increase the length of time and number of HDDs in use through low cost and secure data wiping and (2) to recover material in components through dismantling, remanufacturing and recycling high value metals.

Unfortunately, limitations in recovery due to concerns about potential 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 HDDs across the reverse chain of commerce. For example, the common practice of wholesale HDD shredding to destroy data precludes reuse and reduces material recovery options. Similarly, shredding of 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).

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.

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