Finding the sustainability compass


Sustainability is the name of the game. There has been a drive to reduce carbon emissions in all walks of life – whether that be air travel or car journeys. This has not been the only action taken: over the past few years, there has also been an increased interest in the re-use and recycling of materials: households have long been accustomed to the need to separate material that can be recycled from their general waste.

However, this diligent approach has not been wholly replicated when it comes to data centres. It is true that there has been a determined effort to reduce power consumption in data centres and a greater emphasis on renewable energy sources, but that has not been mirrored by a desire to look at the life cycle of materials that they are using.

Fifty years in the making

The circular economy is very much a phrase of the moment, but it has a long history. The concept was first formulated by economist Kenneth Boulding in 1966 when he postulated about the need to preserve materials. This was taken to new extremes by Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday-Mulvey from the European Commission. Their 1981 paper looked at how economies can thrive with better use of resources.

Perhaps the best demonstration of the way that the circular approach works within data centres is from the Ellen McArthur Foundation.  This sets out that the circular economy is based on three key principles: the elimination of waste and pollution, the circulation of materials and the regeneration of nature.

The scourge of e-waste

Speaking at the recent State of Open conference, Professor Deborah Andrews, from the London South Bank University, set out the ways in which e-waste would affect organisations’ attempts to be sustainable. “At the moment, approximately 50 million tons of e-waste is generated globally per year – equivalent to about six kilos per person,” she says. “If we carry on working the way that we are working, by 2050 we will generate 120 million tonnes of e-waste a year. Not all that waste is dumped in landfill but only about 20 per cent is re-used, much of it is shredded and dumped in landfills.”

She stressed that the circular economy was not solely focused on recycling, although many took it that the terms were interchangeable. It is also about using fewer materials.

The waste involved in industry was of such concern that, in 2020, the EU produced its action plan on the circular economy. This was closely followed by the UK’s circular economy package. “That outlined certain areas that are ripe for a circular approach, particular ICT, electronics and batteries – all things that are relevant to the data centre industry,” Andrews continues. “In fact, 22 out of 34 recommendations could apply to DCI.”

Moving toward the circular data centre

It is an issue that is becoming more serious as there is a greater demand for connectivity and more use being made of data. These pressures have been compounded in recent years by external factors that have disrupted the supply chain: Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have all played their part in reducing the steady flow of components to data centres.

There are, however, steps being taken to look at how data centre owners can improve their game. One of the initiatives in this regard is The Circular Economy for the Data Centre Industry (CEDaCI) project. This is being piloted by London South Bank University and has been set up to support the data centre industry’s transition to the circular economy, with an emphasis on reducing sectoral waste, preventing supply chain problems, and securing uninterrupted data centre operation. 

The CEDaCI project is made up by participants from all life cycle stages and sub-sectors directly and indirectly associated with the Data Centre Industry. This will ensure that all factors in data centre design and management are considered.

A key part of the project is the development of the Circular Data Centre Compass (CDCC) an online tool that lets data centre assess the total sustainability of computer servers. However, it goes a step further than looking at the outward appearance of any kit. “What gives the project greater insight is the amount of primary research that’s carried out,” Andrews explains. “We roll our sleeves up and strip products down and through chemical processes we can identify what’s in components: we reverse engineer everything.”

Better data delivers better understanding

Andrews adds that much of the research in this area has relied on secondary sources, but this is unreliable. Manufacturers sub-contract to a third party; who then sub-contract again, and so on:  it is hard to have real understanding of what is going on, particularly when equipment has such a long life-cycle, it means that not everything is up to date.

The use of primary sources like this gives CEDaCI a real advantage in assessing what the issues are and where future bottlenecks in the supply chain could come from. It means that data centre managers have complete knowledge of all the materials that they are using and whether they have a genuine circular approach.  This is not for fashion’s sake: by paying attention to such detail, users can preserve the active life of data centres.

A holistic approach to sustainability

And it is not just about the circuitry that is deployed or the sustainability of the raw materials but the compass also pays attention to working practices. “It is no good having sustainable practices if the components are produced by using slave labour,” Andrews says.

These are still relatively early days in developing the concept of circularity.  For a notion that had its roots in a paper published more than 50 years ago, progress has been painfully slow.  The truth is that, up till now, there has been no pressing need to alter working practices: there’ has been no shortage of products, no problems with data supply and no financial imperative to change.  All of that is changing, there is a realisation that things cannot carry on as before: there is not an infinite supply of resources and, as has been painfully clear in the past few years, the supply chain is not immune to disruption. 

The CEDaCI initiative is a good starting point for data centre operators who want to get a handle on how sustainable their operations are and whether that will help with future plans.

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