This Year, Give the Gift of Biodegradable Storage

What can you do with dead or unneeded disk drives? Here are some suggestions.

According to a recent newswire report, scientists working for Pvaxx Research & Development in Amsterdam, NL, have invented a polymer that looks like any other plastic but decays back into soil nutrients when discarded. Motorola plans to use the Earth-friendly plastic to build cell phones and, if you can believe it, to embed sunflower seeds in the casing that will feed on the remains of the biodegradable plastic when the phones are discarded into rubbish heaps and landfills in the coming years.

Presumably, the bulk of the 650 million phones sold in 2004 will be committed to posterity by 2006. This has environmentalists going nuts, and to make a long story short, Motorola’s strategy will answer concerns by converting all the ugly, smelly trash piles of today into lovely fields of nutritious and aesthetically-pleasing yellow blossoms.

I’m not a Greenie or anything, but I like the philosophy: “circle of life” and all that. The article made me wonder what would bloom from all of the disk drives discarded over the next couple of years.

Given the approximately 304 million hard disk units shipped in 2004, and given an minimum annual failure rate of 3 percent per year, about 10 million disk drives bite the dust next year—not including older drives that continued to spin long past their manufacturer’s mean time to failure (MTTF) expectations but will have now given up the ghost. All these dead drives must end up in a landfill somewhere, and I suspect that nothing good will grow from them.

Now, I used to advocate taking all the crashed drives (and many newer array products, whether they have failed or not), placing them on a barge, and then dropping them into the ocean to replenish our ailing coastal reefs. Logistical problems for land-locked data centers notwithstanding, it seemed like a good idea.

A fellow from the State of California asked me at a conference recently what I thought he should do with a large quantity of a vendor’s array products that he had in his data center. I asked him why he had purchased such overpriced and proprietary gear and he replied that he hadn’t bought it: the arrays had simply shown up at the door of the glass house like so many abandoned babies left in wicker baskets on the front stoop. He speculated that, since the products had not been ordered by anyone in the IT services department, it was probably some sort of payback for a big financial contribution made by the vendor to “Awnold’s” gubernatorial bid.

The man said he had absolutely no use for the gear, which encodes data crossing its proprietary controller so it can be tracked as it migrated from platform to platform over time—but only if you use more storage of the same type and featuring the same controller. In his view, and mine, the technology was a classic vendor lock-in strategy. He didn’t want it on his raised floor.

The gear seemed to be a good candidate for the artificial reef treatment, and I suggested this approach for resolving the issue. Then, some wise guy wrote to me and said that there are a lot of noxious elements in chips and other circuitry of the array that would actually kill fish, rather than provide an ecosystem for them—for the first couple of years, at least.

That pretty much nixed the reef idea. But it left me back where I started: finding an environmentally sound way to dispose of all the obsolete and non-functioning disk drives out there.

Now, there are some pop artists who make objects d’art out of everything from soda cans to horseshoes. Certainly, they could absorb some small percentage of the drive cast-offs for use in modern sculptures.

A few more might be disposed of in the fashion of former Mafia kingpins: mixed together with concrete to form the cornerstones of new buildings somewhere. According to my friend, Steve Sicola, lately the VP of a skunk works project for Seagate Technologies focused on making bigger and better disk drives. Enterprise-class components at least have resiliency characteristics that make them appropriate to heavy-duty cycles. I wonder if all of that engineering would also make them suitable as building blocks for, well, buildings? Might we be able to build a bridge out of them?

I wonder whether the crafts enthusiasts could come up with a few more ideas? Could disk drives become the new dried pasta, useful in making paperweights, doorstops, or even furniture? Could they become plant holders: Chia-drives? What about Zen waterfalls, or even clocks? Who on your Christmas list wouldn’t like one of those?

Even with all of these potential aftermarket channels, we will still be producing more disk drives than we can dispose of productively. The industry needs to think this through carefully and to find ways, as Motorola apparently has, to make the gear recycleable or otherwise biodegradable in a manner that Captain Planet and the Planeteers would approve.

Perhaps the thinking is that we can stack them up higher and higher and stand atop them to keep from drowning in our own data pools. Or maybe we build barricades out of them to keep out the vendor sales representatives. Now, that’s an idea.

Happy Holidays from

About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.