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The material cost of a digitalised society

Thu 26 Sep 2019

Techbuyer’s Astrid Wynne looks at the data centre’s response to the material cost of an increasingly digitalised society

Technology is rightly hailed as a force for good in making the world a fairer, more sustainable place. However, meeting the needs of an increasingly digitalised society has a material cost.

With more and more transactions, processes and communication transferring to the online world, energy usage and greenhouse gasses are increasing faster in this sector than most.

A significant proportion of this is embodied energy in the hardware, which accounts for roughly 50 percent of overall impact. While this is far from exclusive to the data centre sector, it is something we will need to be increasingly aware of going forward. The good news is that the industry is responding with new research into more sustainable solutions.

A shift in focus

Historically, we have focused on the energy draw of data centres and the introduction of wind and solar as a sustainable solution. Headlines report on issues like Google’s pledge to power 100 percent of its data centres with locally produced renewable energy as a ‘green story’.

However, the use phase is only part of the story. Aside from the fact that renewable energy has its own material cost in terms of the hardware required to generate it, there is also the energy needed to make the data centres in the first place, particularly the IT hardware. Another factor to consider is our increased use of digital, which is causing an explosion in the material cost.

A new appreciation of this may well be on the horizon. According to a recent report by think tank The Shift Project, digital technologies’ share in global greenhouse gas emissions has risen from 2.5 percent in 2013 to 3.7 percent today, and energy intensity is predicted to rise at a rate of 4 percent per year. This contrasts with the fact that global GDP’s energy intensity is declining by 1.8 percent year on year, ironically in part due to the increased use of digital.

In 2015, digital was expected to account for just over 3 percent of world energy consumption by 2025. Current expectation is that figure will be around 5.5 percent. CO2 emissions of digital technologies have risen by about 450 million tons since 2013 in OECD countries, whereas global CO2 emissions decreased by 250 million tons overall over the same period.

Focus on data centres

Why is this relevant to the data centre sector in particular? Because the data centre is the material end of our digitalised world. The energy needed to manufacture the hardware is huge, and this is beginning to draw increasing public attention.

Speaking at Vivatech in May 2019, Jean-Marc Jancovici of The Shift Project noted manufacturing a single computer emitted half a tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere, when mining, transportation and assembly were factored in. John Laban of Open Compute pointed out that servers are also computers. Their joint presentation received a massive 10,000 views in the first two weeks.

With this amount of traction, it is easy to see a near future where the data centre sector comes under the same scrutiny as the present oil industry. With so many Critical Raw Materials (identified as either rare or have a highrisk associated with their supply) involved in IT hardware production, the issue is further complicated. Sending equipment to landfill deprives us of much needed future resource, so recycling and reuse become essential given the current refresh cycles.

“The good news is that the industry is responding with new research into more sustainable solutions”

Upcoming projects

There is good research on the horizon which should help with the problem. The Intereg-funded CEDaCI project, which Techbuyer joined in June 2019, is a three year, multi-national project lead by London South Bank University. It has set some high targets, which include increasing reclamation and reuse of Critical Raw Materials (CRM), extending product life through equipment reuse and remanufacture, reducing the use of virgin materials, waste and the environmental impact arising from the growth in redundant equipment.

At present only 10 percent of CRM from the sector are recycled and recovered, but this will increase to 19 percent and 24 percent five and ten years after the project ends; reuse of equipment will also increase to 65 percent and 75 percent respectively and at end-of-life overall product ‘waste’ will be reduced to 35 percent and 25 percent.

It is an exciting project to be involved with because it will shine a light on a problem we have only been able to see parts of until now. Solid data on the amount of waste generated by data centres, exactly which materials it contains and where it ends up is difficult to find.

The ProSUM project has an excellent resource in its urban mine platform for the EU, which tracks the flow of ICT from manufacture, use to disposal. However, this is not exhaustive and the statistics for data centre IT hardware are limited to say the least. There are categories for printed circuit boards, HDD drives and cables, but nothing specifically server related.

Similarly, gauging the size of the secondary market is an inexact science even for organisations like Free ICT Europe, which promotes and supports it.

This is compounded by the fact no one seems to have exhaustive lists of which materials their equipment contains and in what amounts. I suspect part of the reason for this is the large number of smaller component manufacturers who feed the market. In some cases, assembly sites will swap suppliers at short notice.

There seems to be little time to request and file granular information when this happens. The three-year CEDaCI project is likely to provide some answers on this. Its multidisciplined stakeholders include academics, industry consultants, designers, cutting edge recyclers and refurbishment specialists across France, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.

We are really excited about being involved because the focus is the same as ours has been for some time: how can we make better use of resources in the sector and what are the tools to make this widespread? The Data Centre Alliance has also invited us to chair a Special Interest Group on Circular Economy, which will begin in the near future and generate a white paper for the industry.

Bringing together representatives from various companies in the sector, this will produce practical advice to industry on how to improve material usage and system design. It is a shorter term project than CEDaCI, but all the more valuable for that. Outlining what can be done in the short term is highly valuable.

In amongst all this, there is the macro picture of the fantastic opportunity digital gives us for a more sustainable future. Green IT has the potential to be a saviour when it comes to limiting greenhouse gas emissions in other sectors.

Visionaries describe a world where driverless cars are shared between multiple households, run by an algorithm that calculates who needs to be picked up when. Future sharing platforms like these are hailed as a part of the solution that the circular economy represents.

As a sector, we can help maximise thesebenefits. Analysing the material cost of digital within the data centre, and taking steps to reduce this, will help create a brighter digital future for all.


This article is appearing in the upcoming edition of DCM Magazine. Click here to see if you qualify for a free DCM subscription.

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circular economy
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