Making end-user computing more sustainable

Identifying endpoint assets, implementing virtual desktops and using refurbished equipment are some of the ways to manage the environmental sustainability of endpoint devices

With the rapid acceleration of digital business and the introduction of new compute capabilities for AI workloads, demand for new endpoint devices is continuing to grow at exponential rates. This comes at a steep environmental and financial cost for most organisations.

Endpoint devices make up a significant portion of IT’s overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions footprint and waste production within most enterprises.

In response, increasing government regulations are focusing on the sustainable management of end-user devices and e-waste, including the Australian government’s National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme.

According to the UN’s fourth Global e-waste monitor launched in March, Australia produced 580 million kg of e-waste in 2022, which the government is tackling through the scheme’s 80% e-waste recycling target for the 2026‑2027 financial year.

Managing the environmental sustainability of endpoint devices is increasingly becoming a core responsibility for infrastructure and operations (I&O) leaders. Yet, many don’t realise the decisions they make throughout the device life cycle — from procurement and shipping to asset management and decommissioning — have a significant impact in optimising IT sustainability.

There are many indirect benefits by making strategic device sustainability decisions, including cost savings, process modernisation, resilience and a higher level of employee satisfaction and talent attraction.

Achieving a sustainable device life cycle is a critical business opportunity, and the circular economy provides a framework for pursuing such goals. That is, to optimise device intake and use, not just mitigate disposal.

The IT circular economy can be used to continually rationalise, retain and restructure the complete device life cycle to equally serve the planet, engage employees and support the business – and there are practices to achieve this.

Existing assets

Thoroughly catalogue and identify endpoint assets, and take a critical look at the ratio of devices per employee. Once calculated, optimise the number of devices per worker to ensure no one is wasting underutilised resources.

From a waste and emissions reduction perspective, reusing or repairing devices is more effective than remanufacturing or recycling them as they contain embodied carbon and energy impact. They also have the expense of additional labour and costs to decommission and procure new equipment.

Device life span

Most organisations are increasing refresh cycles to four to five years for employee laptops and three years on mobile devices to capitalise on their residual useful life. Extending device life span represents potential cost savings and can defer significant quantities of GHG emissions from manufacturing new products.

Life spans can be defined based on workplace personas (such as hybrid/mobile, deskbound, frontline) and on their unique usage patterns and hardware requirements. Maximise the return on endpoint investments by using utilisation and performance data to know whether a device needs to be replaced, or to predict and proactively replace batteries and other hardware showing symptoms of failure.

Beyond a life span of five years, recycling for materials and parts is often the optimal option, as most commercial-grade devices lose support and security updates; exhibit higher component failure rates, slower performance and cosmetic wear and tear; and consume more energy.

Virtual desktops

A recent Gartner survey found that desktop as a service (DaaS) or virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) were in the top 10 most widely implemented initiatives to reduce IT GHG emissions.

Whether working from an office or home, deskbound workers who don’t need a laptop may be able to use more efficient devices. DaaS enables use of fixed thin clients, which have a significantly lower manufacturing and operational carbon footprint than laptops or desktops, and a longer useful life span of six to eight years.

The life span of existing computers can also be extended by repurposing them with a thin client operating system, which will also enable a consistent operating system across thin clients and repurposed PCs.

Power state configurations

The long-term reliability of a device often depends on how an employee treats and maintains it. The battery is one of the first things to fail on a device, so reducing energy consumption throughout use will preserve the battery and avoid premature obsolescence.

Configure devices to operate in the lowest power state required to perform, such as standby mode or a sleep state when not used and enable other power-saving features. Expectations should also be set with employees to do the same.

Refurbished equipment

For employees that don’t need a high-performing device, consider refurbished and remanufactured equipment to give devices a second life. Increased reports of companies significantly reducing hardware spend and e-waste are helping reduce the stigma around this. A remanufacturer relationship also mitigates new device supply chain issues with a less competitive resource stream.

To securely capture the cost, emissions and waste reduction potential of refurbished products, ensure providers have specific quality and environmental certifications, and negotiate take-back and recycling strategies. Also, check coverage of software, firmware, driver and updates to fix bugs and security issues for the entire expected life, as well as extended warranty coverage.

Device procurement

Environmental sustainability must be a core buying criterion in every procurement deal. Consider vendors that transparently share sustainability performance data. Choose equipment that is shipped in responsible packaging, has ecolabel certifications and product carbon footprint data. Use baseline testing to compare laptops to determine energy efficiency and calculate that standard energy load within the organisation’s unique environment.

Another area to evaluate is managed device life cycle services (MDLS) and bring your own device (BYOD). MDLS ensures the environmentally efficient tracking, management and disposal of devices is a responsibility of the vendor, while BYOD ultimately reduces the overall device load that the organisation is accountable for reporting on and measuring from an environmental perspective. It avoids contributing to the mass manufacturing of new endpoint devices.

Autumn Stanish is director analyst at Gartner


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