From weapons systems to outer space, electronic waste is a threat to national security

Addressing key national security challenges presented by China and Russia often comes down to protecting key networks and securing supply chains for critical defense capabilities.

Limiting the loss of sensitive information, maintaining access to reliable electronics and critical minerals, and protecting our satellite network is fundamental to our most pressing national security missions. They are also all linked to a common challenge: to fight against the different forms of waste. Raising public awareness of these issues and employing a range of public-private partnerships can go a long way to strengthening our country’s position in great power competition.

A critical step is to address the growing volume of personal electronic waste (e-waste) produced in the United States. E-waste is the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world. Americans throw more than 350,000 mobile phones and 120,000 laptops per day. This is a staggering amount of personal data that could potentially be exposed. Adversaries can target garbage streams of individuals in sensitive political or security jobs, seeking information about their movements and access to digital files.

About 25% of data breaches in the United States are caused by negligence, including failure to properly erase data from devices upon disposal. Private sector options for safer disposal exist, but Americans need to recognize that this is a national problem. Additional awareness and incentives to use safe disposal techniques are needed.

The massive volume of discarded e-waste in the United States represents not only a vulnerability but also a potential solution to two significant supply chain issues. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only about 25% of US e-waste is collected for recycling, the rest being destined for landfills. Without clear federal standards, some of this e-waste collected for recycling ends up in sketchy overseas recycling operations that are known for their poor quality. environmental and worker safety standardsand to return substandard counterfeit electronic components return to US defense industry components. This jeopardizes the effectiveness of our weapon systems.

A Report of the Senate Armed Services Committee published in 2012 detailed the problem counterfeit parts pose to our military. Last year a report produced by a task force of the House Armed Services Committee also concluded that we continue to face challenges with the complete understatement of component supply chains. He also noted our dependence on foreign sources for the sourcing and refining of essential minerals. One way to address the supply chain challenge is to increase e-waste recycling to more reliably capture useful components, including rare minerals.

Our allies in Europe have also identified the need for better recycling options. A 2021 report commissioned by the European Union called recycling e-waste a matter of national security. The report notes that Europe already has a higher e-waste recycling rate than the United States and identifies overseas supplies of vital circuit boards and batteries as a major concern for defense industries. He recommends a stronger recycling mandate for rare earth minerals to reduce reliance on potential adversaries as sources.

A stark example for Europe and the United States is the reliance on cobalt as a major component in the production of lithium-ion batteries, a key part of electric vehicles and many other commercial and military products. As domestic demand for cobalt continues to grow, China currently handles 80% of the world’s supply. Although some steps have been taken in the United States to reduce direct military dependence on foreign critical minerals, it is still incredibly high dependence. The federal government could send an important signal about the need for more efficient recycling by establishing a waste standard and working in partnership with the private sector to identify and practice viable solutions.

Another area where waste poses a major national security risk is space, particularly the orbital paths of national security and commercial satellites upon which our military and civilian communications networks depend. The Department of Defense tracks more than 27,000 significant orbital debris, a small fraction of the total. This space waste – defunct satellites, debris from anti-satellite operations, remnants of launch components and other sources – poses a serious threat. They destroyed communications satellites and alarmed the International Space Station. Even very small pieces moving at extremely high speeds around the earth can cause catastrophic damage.

Space waste is an area where public-private collaboration and crowdsourcing of innovative approaches can have a major positive impact. One such effort is the “clear constellationproject sponsored by Rubicon Technologies, where I am a member of the advisory board. The competition solicits the best ideas for designing solutions from universities across the country. A panel of experts will evaluate entries and promote some of the best new solutions. From there, partnering with the Department of Defense, NASA, and other federal players would be an ideal way to provide some of the solutions to the problem. Space Force officials could use government resources and data, working with commercial space operators, to implement and test solutions to benefit the national security community as well as civilian space operations.

Waste is a surprisingly large national security challenge. It’s also an area ripe for effective solutions, with public and private actors working in tandem to leverage the best of American capabilities.

Glenn Nye is a former US Representative. He is President and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Rubicon Institute, a group that provides innovative, market-based policy solutions to address the threats posed by waste..

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