IT departments need holistic circular economies to fight climate change

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Companies must build holistic circular economies around their operations to address all sources of emissions and waste if the IT sector is to tackle its growing contribution to ecological collapse.

An April 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting climate increase to 1.5°C, emissions must be reduced by 43% by 2030.

While many companies are busy developing net-zero strategies – with varying degrees of sincerity and effectiveness – to tackle the climate crisis, PwC 2022 CEO Survey says that reaching the reality of net zero “will be extremely difficult for some companies and industries.”

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

Despite their optimism and the vast scale of their resources, however, the global volume of electronic waste (e-waste) is expected to reach 74 metric tons by 2030, of which only 17% is recycled. By 2040, the IT sector should also account for 14% of global emissionsalthough they currently represent only 2 to 4%.

To find out how the industry can create circular economies that address all aspects of the lifecycle of an IT estate and how it can put an end to its increasingly wasteful habits, Computer Weekly sought the opinion of a range of organizations involved in IT sustainability.

First steps

According to Praveen Shankar, Ernst & Young’s UK and Ireland managing partner for technology, media and telecommunications, the starting point for fostering circularity in a company’s operations is visibility and measure.

“Enterprise devices such as laptops and cell phones are generally well tracked, but organizations tend to have less visibility into the deployment of complex equipment such as servers, networking equipment or even hardware components. ‘a data center,’ Shankar said in a recent Computer Weekly article.

“Organizations must start by putting measures in place and identifying gaps in capabilities such as inventory and asset management, in order to gain efficiencies through repair, refurbishment and reuse, overall of the business.”

He added that the measurement will identify actions to be taken, which procurement staff can then use to put plans in place to improve results.

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

For Katy MedlockUK Managing Director of Refurbished Consumer Electronics Market Back Market, extending the life of devices is the first and easiest step companies can take to manage their hardware consumption.

“The longer a device lasts, the longer it will take to get a new one. Improving the lifespan of devices can be as simple as providing employees with protective cases and bags,” she says. simple and inexpensive will reduce the risk of breakage, removing the hassle and cost of paying for screen repairs or even new devices. Used products, which have been checked by experts, in good condition can further reduce the cost.

Medlock adds that while this step and others — such as providing employees with repair and maintenance tutorials — can extend the life of hardware, the devices will never last forever. Once the equipment has reached the end of its “first life”, Medlock also offers to resell it to facilitate the circular economy.

“The longer a device lasts, the longer it will take to get a new one. Improving the lifespan of devices can be as simple as providing employees with protective cases and bags”

Katy Medlock, Back Market

“While the sale of old devices has proven to be a potential security risk, the mass adoption of cloud storage has reduced it to a much more minor issue. Companies can now easily hand over devices without risking locally stored data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands,” she says.

“Sellers of refurbished devices often offer cash on hand for used devices. Many network providers also offer buy-back programs where the value can be used as a discount for the next purchase.

However, if a company is unable to sell a piece of material for reuse, they say it must be properly recycled.

Melson adds the caveat that while many business buyers are expressing concern about data on devices, “it’s not a valid concern because there are now very robust processes in place for effective data erasure for the technologies used. “.

Speaking in the context of data center operators, Jay Dietrich, director of sustainability research at the Uptime Institute, agrees with Shankar that companies should communicate metrics and set targets for product reuse and recycling. and end-of-life components.

“To validate this, data center 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 final disposal of refurbished products and components,” he says, adding that due diligence is essential to verify that chosen recyclers are handling 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 cautions, however, that for these processes to be effective, they need to be implemented “organization-wide” and not in departmental silos. “To enable true circularity, you have to go beyond the organization to work with suppliers and customers, all along the end-to-end value chain,” he adds.

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

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

“Although the assets are owned, the risk on those assets is shared by all parties who depend on them for business continuity,” he says. “Cervest is already seeing organizations integrating climate intelligence into their supplier selection and renewal processes. The benefits are twofold: companies are better prepared for climate change and suppliers are incentivized to make their own operations more resilient. »

According to Dietrich, an often overlooked aspect of data center circularity is the reuse of waste heat recovered from cooling systems.

“The reuse of heat is classified as a subject of circularity, because the heat generated during the operation of the data center can be captured and used for beneficial purposes to heat other facilities – offices, swimming pools and greenhouses, for example – or supply heat to a district heating system,” he says.

While Dietrich’s view relates specifically to waste heat in data centers, Melson adds that companies should generally assess the energy performance of the respective IT equipment, taking into account emissions and waste throughout the cycle. equipment life.

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

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

To begin with, organizations therefore need to gain an understanding of their current IT estates and circular processes through measurement and tracking, which can inform more targeted actions in the future.

From there, they should take steps to extend the life of the equipment as long as possible, before setting up other processes to recycle or reuse it. All of this needs to be backed up by thorough due diligence on suppliers and their respective processes, which will give companies confidence that equipment will be handled correctly.

“This way, organizations can work in tandem with players in their ecosystem, such as suppliers and customers, to achieve tangible impact through circularity,” Shankar says.

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