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Defra sustainable ICT paper highlights datacentre water crisis

A new paper on sustainable ICT published by Defra in conjunction with the IT industry has identified the areas of e-waste that need urgent attention

An event hosted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) at the Natural History Museum in London has highlighted the environmental risks of digitisation.

To coincide with the event, Defra published a new paper, Helping businesses create a greener, more sustainable future through ICT.

Among the areas of concern highlighted in the report is the need for datacentre managers to understand the environmental impact of water cooling.

In the introduction to the document, Chris Howes, chief digital and information officer at Defra, warned of the increasing impact of IT on the planet. “Technologies have major environmental impacts. In our ever more digitised world, they enable organisations to do things differently, and their use will only increase,” he said.

Speaking at the event, Kulveer Ranger, senior vice-president for strategy and communications at Atos, said datacentres were silent, huge and guzzling up energy. “When will the penny drop that every tweet or Instagram post is free, but there is a digital footprint that leads to an energy footprint.” According to Ranger, by 2025, a fifth of global energy consumption will come from IT.

Yet while the industry has begun to understand the issue of energy-hungry datacentre equipment, Matt Bradley, sustainability director at Capgemini, told delegates that a typical datacentre would consume 100,000 litres over five years.

In terms of the environmental impact of datacentre water cooling, the Defra paper urged organisations to think about a risk management plan and a business impact analysis. It suggested IT heads develop a water risk plan, which could address sustainable development goals. It recommended that in-house and external datacentre operators develop comprehensive water strategy and KPIs – including local action plans – and implement water stewardship strategies.

Read more about sustainability and the circular economy

Other speakers at the event discussed the IT industry’s use of cobalt, lithium and rare earth metals. United Nations environment programme officer Sandra Averous Monnery said there is 44.6 million tonnes of e-waste and that “the value of the raw materials in e-waste is $55bn.”

According to Defra sustainability lead Mattie Yeta, 7% of the world’s gold is locked in e-waste.

Some 80% of e-waste is illegally treated, leading to exposure to harmful chemicals including lead and flame retardants. For manufacturers, Defra recommended that IT suppliers collect ICT products from customers after the lease period, through trade-in and return-for-cash programmes.

Averous Monnery said: “Encourage customers and your organisation to reuse and recycle products and material so that very little goes to waste and as much material as possible is returned into the supply chain for manufacturing.”

Marc Waters, Europe, Middle East and Africa head of HPE, discussed how the company’s former manufacturing facility in Glasgow is now being used as a recycle centre, which has uses both in terms of providing refurbished IT equipment to businesses and helping to source difficult-to-find products.

“Some 89% of legacy technology can be reconditioned, serviced and put back into the supply chain,” he said. In one case, the Glasgow facility was able to provide Nasa with a refurbished Digital Alpha 1280 server, which was being used to run one of its legacy applications. “We had it on a shelf in Scotland,” added Waters. “We had refurbished it and it was ready to go.”

The speakers at the event discussed the need for a circular economy to ensure the raw materials in electronic products could be reused. Averous Monnery said: “We are using scarce resources. Recycle, repair and reuse to ensure the lifetime of electronic products are extended.”

Louise Koch, corporate social responsibility director at Dell, said: “Circular sustainability starts at the design stage.”

Bio-leaching  precious and heavy metals

Beyond simply refurbishing legacy IT equipment, the Defra event streamed a video showing an initiative run by e-waste recycler Network 2 Supplies and Coventry University on using a technique called bio-leaching for recycling rare Earth metals. The process is low energy, and relies on bacteria to digest printed circuit boards in order to release precious and heavy metals.

In its sustainable ICT paper, Defra also called for sustainable procurement, such that environmental impact is considered as a key aspect of a tender process. “Your efforts to improve buying habits combined with those of others will go a long way to reducing negative impacts on people and the planet,” Defra stated in the paper. 

From a purely IT perspective, Axelos plans to include sustainable ICT as a core module in its ITIL IT management framework. Margo Leach, chief product officer at Axelos, said: “There is a real opportunity to address a huge number of people and change their mindsets through Itil.”

The speakers recognised that change does not happen quickly, but as Deborah Tripley, director of environmental advocacy at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) warned: “We have only 12 years to halve carbon emissions. Business as usual will lead to a three degree increase in temperature,” which she said would be catastrophic.

“If you don’t change, you will be on the wrong side of history,” she concluded.

Read more on IT efficiency and sustainability

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