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IT departments need holistic circular economies to fight climate change

With sustainability moving up the boardroom agenda, IT managers should revamp procurement strategies to align with the principles of the circular economy, but what does this mean for managing the IT lifecycle?

Enterprises must build holistic circular economies around their operations to address every source of emissions and waste if the IT sector is to tackle its mounting contribution to ecological collapse.

An April 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting climate increases to 1.5°C, emissions need to be reduced by 43% before 2030.

While many companies are busy working up net-zero strategies – with varying degrees of sincerity and effectiveness – to deal with the climate crisis, PwC’s 2022 CEO Survey says achieving the reality of net zero “will be exceedingly difficult for some companies and industries”.

It also noted that the most “upbeat of all CEOs” were those of private equity firms and technology companies, which “continue to benefit from large inflows of capital thanks to the favourable financial conditions prevailing in most advanced economies”.

Despite their optimism and the vast scale of their resources, however, the global volume of electronic waste (e-waste) is forecast to reach 74 metric tonnes by 2030, with only 17% of that being recycled. By 2040, the IT sector is also expected to account for 14% of global emissions, despite only accounting for 2-4% currently.

To learn how the sector can build circular economies that deal with every aspect of an IT estate’s lifecycle, and how it can kick its increasingly wasteful habits, Computer Weekly sought input from a range of organisations involved in IT sustainability.

First steps

The starting point in driving circularity in an enterprise’s operations is – according to Praveen Shankar, Ernst & Young’s UK & Ireland managing partner for technology, media and telecoms – visibility and measurement.

“Corporate devices such as laptops and mobile phones are typically well tracked, but organisations tend to have less visibility around complex equipment deployment such as servers, network equipment, or even elements of a datacentre,” said Shankar in a recent Computer Weekly article.

“Organisations should start by putting measurement in place and identifying gaps in capabilities such as inventory and asset management, to drive efficiencies through repair, refurbishment and reuse, across the business.”

He added that measurement will allow identification of what actions need to be taken, which procurement staff can then use to put plans in place to improve outcomes.

Craig Melson, associate director for climate, environment and sustainability at trade association TechUK, agrees that getting data on the percentage of IT assets going to landfill, as well as the percentage being refurbished and/or reused, is essential, adding that buying refurbished equipment is a good place to start as it has a lower carbon footprint.

For Katy Medlock, UK general manager at refurbished consumer electronics marketplace Back Market, extending the lifespan of devices is the first and easiest step companies can take to address their hardware consumption.

“The longer a device lasts, the longer until a new one is needed. Improving devices’ lifespan can be as simple as providing employees with protective cases and bags,” she says. “A simple and cheap case will reduce the chances of breakage, removing the hassle and cost of paying for screen repairs or even new devices. Second-hand products, that have been checked by experts, in good condition can further reduce the cost.”

Medlock adds that while this and other steps – such as providing employees with repair and care tutorials – can prolong hardware lifespan, devices will never last forever. Once equipment reaches the end of its “first life”, Medlock also suggests selling it on to facilitate the circular economy.

“The longer a device lasts, the longer until a new one is needed. Improving devices’ lifespan can be as simple as providing employees with protective cases and bags”
Katy Medlock, Back Market

“While selling old devices once proved a potential security risk, the mass adoption of cloud storage has reduced it to a much smaller problem. Companies can now easily hand over devices without the risk of locally stored data falling into the wrong hands,” she says.

“Refurbished device vendors will often offer cash-in-hand for used devices. Many network providers also offer buy-back programmes where the value can be used as a discount for the next purchase.”

However, if a company is unable to sell on a piece of hardware for reuse, she says it must be properly recycled.

Melson adds the caveat that while many business buyers express concern about the data on devices, “this is not a valid concern as there are very robust processes now for effective data wiping for used tech”.

Speaking in the context of datacentre operators, Jay Dietrich, a research director on sustainability at the Uptime Institute, agrees with Shankar that enterprises should report metrics and set goals for the reuse and recycling of end-of-life products and components.

“To validate this, datacentre operators must maintain an inventory of end-of-life products sent to their product recyclers/reclaimers. Operators should also verify that recyclers/reclaimers track the ultimate disposition of refurbished products and components,” he says, adding due diligence is vital to verifying that the chosen recyclers manage the materials and products as promised, and that the equipment does not end up in landfill when it can be reused instead.

Encompassing the entire value and supply chain

Shankar warns, however, that for these processes to be effective, they must be done “across the organisation” and not in departmental silos. “Enabling true circularity requires going beyond the organisation to work with suppliers and customers, across the full end-to-end value chain,” he adds.

Iggy Bassi, founder and CEO of “climate intelligence” company Cervest, says that while building circularity into business models is “undeniably important” when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and the unsustainable consumption of raw materials, “adapting supply chains and procurement processes to cope with the uncertainties of our future climate must be a parallel consideration”.

He adds that an open approach to climate intelligence is vital, as it allows all parties involved in the supply or value chain to communicate over, and take responsibility of, their shared assets.

“While assets are owned, the risk on those assets is shared by all parties that rely on them for business continuity,” he says. “Cervest is already seeing organisations feeding climate intelligence into their supplier selection and renewal processes. The benefits are two-fold: enterprises are better prepared for climate change, and suppliers are incentivised to make their own operations more resilient.”

According to Dietrich, an oft-overlooked aspect of datacentre circularity is the reuse of recovered waste heat from cooling systems.

“Heat reuse is categorised as a circularity topic, as heat generated in the operation of the datacentre can be captured and put to a beneficial use heating other facilities – offices, swimming pools and greenhouses, for example – or providing heat to a district heating system,” he says.

While Dietrich’s point is specifically about waste heat in datacentres, Melson adds that enterprises generally should make an assessment of the energy performance of respective IT gear, factoring in emissions and waste throughout the entire lifecycle of equipment.

“Ensuring effective value chain due diligence should encompass IT use and disposal,” he says. “If products are being defined as e-waste, take a deep interest in how IT is treated and disposed of, as there are numerous environmental and human rights risks in the waste sector.”

Melson further adds that setting circular economy targets in requests for proposal (RFPs) during the procurement process “is also a good way to drive supplier engagement” further down the chain.

To start with, then, organisations must gain an understanding of their current IT estates and circular processes through measurement and tracking, which can inform more targeted action going forward.

From here, they should take steps to extend equipment life for as long as possible, before having further processes in place to either recycle or reuse it. All of this needs to be underpinned by extensive due diligence on suppliers and their respective processes, which will give enterprises confidence that equipment will be properly dealt with.

“In this way, organisations can work in tandem with their ecosystem players, such as suppliers and customers, to make a tangible impact through circularity,” says Shankar.

Read more about the circular economy

  • Datacentre operators talk a good fight when it comes to tackling climate change, but there is far more they should and could be doing to make their operations more sustainable, say experts.
  • Research from data sanitisation firm Blancco shines a light on the costly and contradictory stance that government IT managers have when it comes to disposing of old solid-state drives.
  • Amazon’s recent announcement to extend the useful life of its datacentre equipment has been deemed a positive decision for the cloud computing giant, but will other companies adopt this cost-saving and sustainability strategy?

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