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

Addressing the top national security challenges presented by China and Russia often boils down to protecting key networks and ensuring supply chains for critical defense capabilities. 

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

One critical step is addressing 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 discard upwards of 350,000 cell phones and 120,000 laptops daily. That is a staggering amount of personal data potentially at risk of exposure. Adversaries can target waste streams of individuals in sensitive political or security jobs, seeking information about their movements and access to digital files. 

About 25 percent of U.S. data breaches are caused by negligence, including failing to properly erase data from devices upon disposal. Private sector options for more secure disposal exist, but Americans must recognize that this is a whole-of-nation problem. Additional awareness and incentives to use secure disposal techniques are needed. 

The massive volume of e-waste discarded in the U.S. represents not only a vulnerability but also a potential solution to two important supply chain issues. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only about 25 percent of U.S. e-waste is collected for recycling, with the rest destined for landfills. Without clear federal standards, some of that e-waste collected for recycling ends up in sketchy recycling operations overseas that are known for poor environmental and worker safety standards, and for returning subpar counterfeit electronic components back into U.S. defense industry components. That risks the effectiveness of our weapons systems.  

Senate Armed Services Committee report released in 2012 detailed the problem that counterfeit parts represent to our military. Last year a report conducted by a task force of the House Armed Services Committee also concluded that we continue to face challenges with fully understating component supply chains. It also noted our dependence on foreign sources for critical mineral supply and refining. One way to address the supply chain challenge is to increase the recycling of electronic waste to more reliably capture useful components, including rare minerals. 

Our allies in Europe similarly identified the need for better recycling options. A 2021 report commissioned by the European Union called e-waste recycling a matter of national security. The report noted that Europe already has a higher e-waste recycling rate than the United States, and identified foreign supplies of vital circuit boards and batteries as a key concern for defense industries. It recommends a stronger recycling mandate for rare earth minerals to decrease dependence on potential adversaries as sources.  

A stark example for Europe and the United States is the dependence on cobalt as a major component in the production of lithium-ion batteries, a key fixture in electric vehicles and many other commercial and military products. As the domestic demand for cobalt continues to increase, China currently processes 80 percent of the global supply. Though some steps have been taken in the United States to reduce direct military dependence on foreign critical minerals, this is still a staggeringly high dependency. The federal government could send an important signal about the need for more effective recycling by setting a waste standard and working in partnership with the private sector to identify and put into practice workable solutions. 

Another area where waste represents a key risk to national security is in space, specifically the orbital paths of national security and commercial satellites upon which our military and civilian communications networks depend. The Department of Defense is tracking over 27,000 pieces of sizeable orbital debris, a small fraction of the total. These pieces of space waste — defunct satellites, debris from anti-satellite operations, leftover launch components and other sources — are a serious threat. They have destroyed communications satellites and caused alarm to the international space station. Even very small pieces traveling 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 Constellation” project sponsored by Rubicon Technologies, where I serve as an advisory council member. The contest solicits the best ideas to design solutions from universities across the country. A panel of experts will judge the entries and promote some of the best new solutions. From there, a partnership with the Department of Defense, NASA and other federal actors would be an ideal way for some of the solutions to be brought to bear on the problem. Space Force officials might use government resources and data, in conjunction with commercial space operators, to implement and test solutions for the benefit of the national security community as well as civilian space operations. 

Waste is a surprisingly important national security challenge. It is 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 U.S. Representative. He is president and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, and an advisory council member of the Rubicon Institute, a group advancing innovative, market-based policy solutions to address threats posed by waste

Tags Cobalt ewaste Politics of the United States space junk Supply chain management US-China relations

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