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Scoping a more circular approach to net zero in the data centre 

Scoping a more circular approach to net zero in the data centre 

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A zero-waste circular economy enables data centre IT resources to be kept in use for as long as possible. Here, Andrew Gomarsall MBE, Executive Chairman, N2S, explains why a circular IT economy is key to both effective energy reduction and e-waste, and how to go about managing data centre operations in order to achieve this.

While IT, network equipment and cabling are becoming more energy efficient, most of the carbon footprint comes ‘ready wrapped’ on final product delivery to the data centre – before powering up. In fact, 70-90% of it!  

This stems from the ‘embodied’ energy expended across the supply chain from the sourcing of raw materials, component assembly through to product manufacture. There’s also the contribution from M&E but the lifetime of CO2e in data centres seems to be recorded on the buildings, which can equate to just 1% of the CO2e. There seems to a lack of connection between understanding the carbon picture and the associated climate risk.

Therefore, as part of their sustainability agendas in the race towards net zero, both on-prem and colocation data centres need to be embedding zero waste IT equipment strategies. This will optimise equipment lifetimes and reduce their overall embodied carbon levels. The current regime of rip, dispose and replace every few years is driving up the exponential volumes of e-waste year on year. This currently stands at more than 50 metric tonnes globally according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor – the equivalent of 350 large cruise ships.  

There is still a long way to go in the race to net zero which requires data centres doing much more than focusing only on more energy efficient data centre buildings, infrastructure, cooling and renewable power.  

The IT post-usage phase is where most of the carbon savings opportunity lies in the IT asset life cycle: through licensed and regulated refurbishment, reselling and reuse by WEE IT asset disposal (ITAD) operators. Typical three to five years product lifetimes can be extended by as much as another five years. Materials recovered such as gold, copper and steel go back into manufacturing streams and once again become part of the technology manufacturing process, completely closing the life cycle loop – or they can be reformed, becoming anything from street furniture to traffic cones. This circular technology solution offers the most secure, sustainable way of data centres achieving net zero goals.

A key success factor in effectively closing the loop in the circularity of IT is a scalable and totally sustainable method of extraction and recovery of PCB materials. The UN puts the value of wasted rare and precious metals contained on PCBs at US$62.5 billion per year. Moreover, this is where 70-90% of IT’s embodied CO2e reside. Scientists also warn many of these substances are running out due to their limited supply, hard to access location and the rising consumption rate of discarded IT assets. 

To address this, Bioleaching – an arm of Biotechnology that uses bacteria to oxidise and leach out the metal content – is emerging as a potential game changer and an area which N2S is pioneering. The PCB materials can be reclaimed, conserved and recycled without use of harmful acids.

Reporting on the rise

Currently, far too many assets are dumped in landfill rather than recycled, creating toxic gases. This is due to a fundamental flaw in the recording and tracking of e-waste – only 15% currently generated globally each year is formally accounted for. Compounding the problem, recycling of equipment traditionally comes with a large carbon footprint – especially PCBSs. These often travel thousands of miles to refineries in Africa and Asia to be incinerated. Clearly, therefore, environmental impact reporting throughout the IT technology life cycle must be a core component of keeping data centre energy usage, emissions and asset usage on track.

A dashboard reporting system demonstrating how an organisation is contributing to UN Sustainable Development Goals will lead to best practice – by reporting data on the weight and volumes of technology reused, resold and recycled. Science-based metrics will also provide data on environmental impacts around savings and sustainability which can be visualised and converted into actionable information to help reduce emissions.

This type of comprehensive reporting becomes even more vital once Scope 3 emissions disclosure becomes mandatory, which will demand evidence of products and service life cycles end-to-end. As supply chain sustainability draws increased attention from stakeholders including customers, investors and partners, Scope 3 emissions data will need to be included in carbon accounting to provide an accurate assessment of a data centre’s climate impact. However, to ensure this, your IT equipment and channel partners and customers need to collaborate closely with your organisation to maximise the circularity of hardware. It’s a team effort and should be seen as a positive initiative by the data centre and wider IT industry, rather than a chore – especially when it comes to achieving and complying with ESGs.

Further benefits come from saving space rather than holding on indefinitely to equipment no longer required, not forgetting the PR value created in front of customers and employees, and even the financial returns from the proceeds of pre-used assets resold into the market.

Supporting a circular economy also has a benefit to the challenge of conflict minerals and a need to reduce mining for all technology products. Just digging the earth exposes sulphide minerals to air and water. Mining speeds this natural process up – known as acid mine drainage – and is poisoning local waters for hundreds of years. To produce the same amount of minor metals that we use today, we will burn more carbon dioxide to supply power for mining operations and we will create more waste, chemicals and tailings tomorrow.

In summary, extending the life of IT assets and disposing of unusable assets responsibly and ethically will enable a positive contribution to your data centre’s carbon credentials and compliance while supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. A truly circular IT economy is key to effective reduction of both embodied energy in IT asset manufacture and the growing mountain of e-waste. With global e-waste on course to reach 74 million tonnes by 2030, there’s still a lot of work to do.

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