How to dispose of documents securely

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How to dispose of documents securely

Secure your business papers as well as your data. We explain the options, ranging from shredders to disposal services.

So you’re taking all the right precautions with your IT systems: applications and operating systems are kept up to date, security software is installed and regularly updated, you and your staff are vigilant when it comes to dodgy emails, storage devices are carefully wiped or destroyed before disposal, you use (but do not reuse) strong passwords, and so on.

But what about papers that contain sensitive information?

Which shredder?

An office shredder is a starting point – as long as you go for a crosscut model rather than the traditional strip type. Software exists to reassemble scans of shredded documents whether they are strip or crosscut, but scanning crosscut ‘confetti’ is a lot more tedious simply because there are more pieces, so an intruder needs to be more motivated.

It seems hard to believe, but we've heard stories of organisations accepting reassembled (as in taped together) shredded documents as if they were intact for proof of identity purposes.

The trouble is that low-end shredders have very limited duty cycles, which means you can't shred many pages at a time. And the fewer shredded pages that there are in the shredder's bin, the easier it is to reassemble them.

Furthermore, cheaper shredders are less reliable and more prone to jamming. That means people tend to put off shredding, so the box of paper waiting to be shredded fills up, making it a more interesting target for snoops. Then you decide to have a purge, which leads to the shredder overheating or jamming, which puts you off using it. It’s a vicious circle.

If you can, it’s generally worth stretching your budget to a shredder with a decent duty cycle and a sheet feed mechanism that allows you to load a stack of paper and walk away rather than having to stand there shoving a few sheets into the slot at a time.

Commercial-grade shredders can even chew through lever arch binders, so minimal preparation is required. Contrast that with lightweight office models that get indigestion if they are fed as much as a staple.

Look for a cross-cut shredder with automatic document feeder

But what if you have more shredding than a low-cost shredder can handle, but not enough to justify an expensive model?

Document destruction services

As it happens, there are plenty of companies around that offer document destruction services, either on-site or on their premises, and scheduled or on demand. Since most have limited areas of operation, we're not going to mention any names, let alone make any specific recommendations. But do make appropriate enquiries to assure yourself that your chosen provider follows good practices.

The advantage of on-site service is that you can watch the process so you know the job has been done. But in most cases it’s cheaper if the shredding is done at the depot, where the going price seems to be from around $60 for a 240 litre wheelie bin, though you may have to take more than one bin at a time to get that price. You probably only get the bin(s) for a couple of weeks unless you pay more. Conversely, agreeing to regular service may get you a better rate than the provider charges casual clients.

For smaller, intermittent clearances, prepaid bags can be a more economical option – you buy them, fill them at leisure (up to the maximum weight or volume, such as 25kg or 140 litres), and then ring or email to have them collected.

And if you've got a lot to shift – perhaps you've got behind in disposing of papers as their retention periods end, or maybe you just handle a lot of paper – services will often make bulk collections of archive boxes or other containers (that is, you don't have to fill bins yourself) providing they are gathered together ready to be carried out to the truck.

What to do with shreds?

If you decide to take the DIY route and buy your own shredder, what should you do with the shredded documents? If you take them to your local council's transfer station for recycling, strew them around the skip so they are better mixed with all the rest, rather than being in a tight pile.

Also remember that thermal paper is usually not accepted for recycling, so shred receipts, fax paper (there may still be some in your archives!) separately from normal paper. And check with your council whether shredded paper is acceptable for kerbside recycling before putting it in the appropriate bin – assuming you've decided that shredding alone is sufficiently secure for your purposes.

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