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Sustainability: IT isn’t working

The need to sell more stuff does not fit in with the IT industry’s ambitions to go greener and become more sustainable

The lack of commitment across the IT industry to encourage sustainability has been highlighted in two reports to coincide with COP26. Members of the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, said they want to see an end to the cycle of “pushing new products like smartphones on ever smaller timescales”. BCS members chose reusing and recycling electronic waste as the priority policy action to improve tech’s relationship with the environment.

Another report, How IT asset management can contribute towards sustainability, from the Working Group 21 (WG21), also warned that the IT industry is not doing enough to make IT more sustainable.

The report discusses how the IT industry has previously focused on selling new, more energy-efficient equipment over reuse, refurbishment and remanufacture. According to the report’s authors, with the historic doubling of energy efficiency roughly every two years (known as Moore’s Law), prolonging the life of IT assets was traditionally assumed to result in decreased efficiency at use phase and therefore negate the carbon benefits of reuse.

However, they warned: “Recent changes in CPU [processor] trends demonstrate that efficiency gains are flattening at maximum usage and decreasing in low-power mode for servers.” This effectively means that newer IT hardware is no longer more efficient, in terms of the amount of electricity it consumes, than the devices it replaces. There is also the massive carbon footprint incurred during the manufacture and shipping final products to customers.

Mineral waste

Martin Thompson, founder of the ITAM Forum and one of the report’s authors, said: “While much of the focus on sustainable IT has been on electricity consumption, particularly when it comes to datacentres, the more alarming concern is that IT is an extractive industry. In order to build equipment to satisfy the demand for all things digital, from mobile phones and IoT [internet of things] sensors through to laptops and cloud datacentres, a vast array of precious metals are required, such as silver, gold, copper and platinum.

“Despite these precious metals being finite, only 17.4% of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled (according to the UN’s E-waste monitor). This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials, conservatively valued at US$57bn – a sum greater than the gross domestic product of most countries – were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.”

Among the areas IT managers need to consider are the carbon footprint of equipment and a user’s carbon footprint. Another of the report’s authors, Jaroslaw Richert, who is also responsible for IT asset governance at Schneider Electric, suggested that IT strategies need more focus on sustainability. “If you buy IT equipment to last five years, the basic configuration may need to be a bit higher in order for it to last one more year,” he said. Extending the life of IT equipment reduces the impact it has on the environment, he added: “How do we influence the IT strategy in planning for environmental sustainability?”

The report quotes industry figures which estimate that the manufacture and logistics involved in shipping a new server results in almost a metric ton of C02 emissions. For a laptop, this figure is about 450kg of C02. IT equipment also contains a large number of rare earth minerals. The report’s authors warn that some of these materials are predicted to run out within decades unless an alternative source is found. “The seabed has been suggested as an alternative source for some materials; however, this comes with obvious environmental risk,” they note in the report.

Reuse and recycling

Brooks Hoffman, a principal at Iron Mountain, who also co-authored the report, encourages IT leaders to focus on a circular economy for IT equipment. For instance, giving PCs a second life can extend their useful life from four to eight years. There is also a resale value for older equipment. “During Covid, used laptop prices went through the  roof,” he said.

Hoffman recommended that IT departments should also focus on the end of life to make sure IT equipment doesn’t go to landfill. Instead, he said, electronic components should be reused. “There’s a middle ground in parts harvesting. Components that have useful life, like a processor, can get reused in other products.”

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However, the IT industry has been heavily criticised for building obsolescence into equipment, such as soldering batteries into the motherboard of laptops, which makes it much harder for an end-user to replace them when the old battery can no longer hold sufficient power. Alex Bardell, chair of the BCS Green IT specialist group, said: “It is very difficult to fix some computers. A PC may be 99% working, but it is often easier to swap it for a new one than fix it. But people should be able to have their laptops repaired or refurbished.”

Responsible software development

It is not just IT equipment providers that appear to be lacking in their sustainability efforts. The software sector is pushing the performance envelope of existing hardware, forcing people to upgrade to newer hardware. In an era of computing when more and more applications are being delivered via a web user interface, the software industry is wedded to fat client hardware.

Microsoft recently introduced Windows 11, but according to Dale Vile, CEO and distinguished analyst at Freeform Dynamics, it has done little to encourage Windows users to think differently about the way they approach a desktop computing software environment. In a recent blog post, Vile questioned Microsoft’s commitment to  helping customers with more transformative ambitions, writing: “I don’t mean in relation to employees with more demanding requirements such as media production, software development and other activities needing workstation-class devices, but the broader population of business users.”

For Vile, browser-centric computing, such as the type of environment available on Chromebooks, provides a desktop computing experience capable of supporting the majority of end-users.

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