Andrew Gomarsall MBE, chairman, N2S believes that now is the time for more sustainable, circular solutions to extending IT asset lifecycles
It is staggering to know that 70 – 90 per cent of lifetime embodied energy is consumed by IT server, storage and network equipment before actual usage. This takes into account the sourcing of the raw materials, components, manufacturing production process and final delivery to the end customer. As organisations strive for net zero emission by 2030, it is now vital that IT manufacturing energy use be mitigated through extending IT equipment lifespan and creating a technology circular economy.
The equipment usage and post-usage stages of equipment lifecycle management are the only ways of reclaiming and redressing the energy expended in equipment manufacture, yet there is no data lake in circulation that joins these lifecycles together to form a net zero position for enterprise organisations. This requires a holistic, ‘circular’ approach to IT equipment energy and lifecycle management with re-use and recycling playing a predominantly key role: Helping to decarbonise the supply chain and conserve precious metals and earth materials which otherwise go to landfill or are burned, resulting in the release of toxic gases, is at a critical stage.
For context, more than 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated globally each year, the equivalent of all the commercial aircraft ever built. If nothing is done, the e-waste mountain is expected to more than double by 2050 to 120 million tonnes according to the UN’s Global e-waste monitor. The material value of all this waste is unimaginable. For printed circuit board waste alone, the UN puts it at $62.5 billion per year. These contain up to 40 rare and precious metals including gold, silver, platinum, copper, and palladium. Many of the materials used are in increasingly limited supply, or hard to access andare lost due to ritual processes with a detrimental effect to our planet. The irony is, a circular economy would drive better quality yields of material, for example, one tonne of iPhones would deliver 300 times more gold than a tonne of gold oreand 6.5 times more silver than a tonne of silver ore.
All the while, hyperscale applications and business models continue to grow exponentially. And so does the resultant environmental impact of a vast and growing data centre footprint, from the superpowered hyperscale facilities hosting clouds, to enterprise facilities, whether on-premises or colocation. Joining these are innumerable micro and modular ‘edge’ data centres. And the appetite for yet more IT assets can only continue to accelerate with 5G communications technology, artificial intelligence/machine learning and the IoT. With this, delivering a net zero solution out of nowhere is daunting.
Closing the loop
Clearly, consumers, businesses and our entire digital economy cannot function without IT equipment and devices which in turn require an array of materials from steel and plastics to printed circuit board components and copper-based cables. It is therefore inevitable every IT device has a carbon footprint, contributing to global warming. That is why perfectly serviceable IT equipment – routinely discarded by businesses and consumers after just three to five years – should be more widely re-used through sustainable and regulated refurbishment and reselling processes. And in the interests of conservation, there should be widescale recovery of equipment materials and precious metals at end of life.
Materials recovered such as gold, copper and steel can then go back into manufacturing streams and once again become part of the technology manufacturing process, completely closing the lifecycle loop, or they can be reformed, becoming anything from street furniture to traffic cones. This circular technology solution offers the most secure, sustainable way for enterprise and industry to realise their net zero goals. But re-use of the technology and components is just one phase of the lifecycle. What happens when this is end of life?
A key success factor in effectively closing the loop is a scalable and totally sustainable method of extraction and recovery of PCB materials. This is where 70-90 per cent of that embodied CO2 resides – the PCB. Here, harnessing bioleaching is emerging as an exciting and potentially game changing solution, and one that N2S is pioneering. Bacteria are used to oxidise and leach out the metal content, allowing PCB materials to be reclaimed, conserved, and recycled without use of harmful acids.
Throughout the technology lifecycle, environmental impact reporting is a vital part of keeping energy usage and emissions on track. For example, a dashboard demonstrating how an organisation is contributing to UN Sustainable Development Goals by reporting data on the weight and volumes of technology re-used, re-sold and recycled; Science based metrics provide data on environmental impacts around savings and sustainability which can be visualised and converted into actionable information.
In summary, a truly circular IT economy is vital to effective reduction of both embodied energy in IT asset manufacture and the growing mountain of e-waste. To maximise sustainability, more enterprise businesses, data centre operators and IT service providers need to act now by implementing zero-waste strategies. Extending the life of IT assets, disposing of unusable assets responsibly and ethically will enable us all to turn the tide on the tsunami of e-waste, while making a positive contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.