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From cradle to cradle – Creating a Circular Economy for the data centre industry

From cradle to cradle – Creating a Circular Economy for the data centre industry

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Digital innovation has meant business approaches and capabilities have needed to adapt to transform, and the data centre industry has been an enabler for rapid growth. Deborah Andrews, London South Bank University, discusses how data centre leaders can ensure they contribute towards a Circular Economy in today’s transforming technology sphere.

The Internet and World Wide Web as we know it were introduced to the public in 1989; the services offered by this digital communication technology have proved so popular that during the past 30 years engagement has grown at an astonishing rate and 4.2 billion people (55% of the global population) are now ‘connected’. This rapid growth was of course enabled by concurrent development and expansion of the data centre industry, which will continue throughout the coming decade and by 2025, for example, the sector will grow by 300% in Europe with global growth of 500% by 2030.

The combination of increasing reliance on and rapid expansion mean that to date, the data centre industry has focused on operational factors and provision of ever faster, 100% uninterrupted service; consequently, consideration of many factors other than operational energy efficiency have been marginalised. For example most DC equipment is designed for a linear economy – i.e. from cradle-to-grave  – a take, make, use, dispose system which excludes regard for what happens to products when they reach end of life. Products are not designed for easy disassembly and separation of components, which makes refurbishment and recycling difficult in some cases and impossible in others. Equipment also includes components that are unique to the various generations and models, which prohibits interchangeability and limits reuse. Consequently, the data centre industry contributes to WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment), which is currently the fastest growing global waste stream, and every year millions of tonnes of resources are wasted. In addition to rapid growth in the number and variety of electrical and electronic products on the market, WEEE growth is compounded by the lack of investment in and development of appropriate collection and recycling infrastructures.

WEEE includes a number of CRM (Critical Raw Materials); these materials are defined as ‘critical’ because the unmined reserves are very limited, they are located in geo-politically sensitive areas, substitution with other materials is currently impossible and recycling and reclamation rates are very low for some materials and non-existent in others. They are also of high economic and technical significance and although the volume and mass of CRM per data centre product is miniscule, electronics cannot function without them. Therefore, any shortages due to factors such as ring-fencing reserves and political instability will disrupt the supply chain and increase prices, which will adversely affect the data centre industry. Current anecdotal evidence also indicates that the component supply chain has been disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when reliance on data services is even more significant than usual. These factors in conjunction with increasingly rapid equipment refresh rates, predicted sectoral growth and dependence on digital technology highlight the importance of developing an alternative to the linear cradle-to-grave approach, namely a cradle-to-cradle approach; the Circular Economy. While the first three product life stages are the same as those in the Linear Economy – take resources, make products, use products – at end-of-life, materials are not disposed of as waste, they are recycled and reclaimed for use in the next generation of products, creating a closed loop.

In addition to recycling, a Circular Economy includes strategies and practices, which simultaneously reduce waste, extend product life and increase resource efficiency. These practices form the waste hierarchy in which value declines with each strategy/process as follows:

  • reduce embodied materials and energy without compromising performance
  • reuse second life market for products ‘as is’
  • repair / re-manufacture second life market for products that have replacement and/or component upgrades and are ‘as good as new’
  • recycle at end-of-life to keep materials in the value stream for as long as possible
  • energy from waste if recycling isn’t possible
  • disposal in a non-hazardous process if there is no other option 

Developing a Circular Economy for the sector is possible but is incredibly challenging and involves rethinking many strategies and processes starting with design. At present, approximately 70% of the environmental impact of a product is determined during the design phase and as stated above, many data centre products have been designed without particular consideration of end-of-life which makes refurbishment of many products and components technically difficult at best and impossible at worst. The same is true for recycling, as a result of which materials reclamation is also limited; this is exacerbated by user behaviour because of concern about data security and many users insist on component shredding rather than data sanitisation via software-based and degaussing processes for example. CRM can be reclaimed from shreds through heat and chemical-based procedures but the reclamation process for one individual material usually destroys others and consequently, 100% reclamation from shreds is impossible at present. Changes to design and manufacture should facilitate disassembly, separation, refurbishment and recycling, which will support development of a sectoral Circular Economy.

Looking forward to 2030, if these changes as well as others are instigated, the potential for positive economic, environmental and social impacts deriving from a sectoral Circular Economy are considerable.

For example, development of a sector-specific infrastructure for closed-loop recycling and reclamation of materials (with emphasis on CRMs and Conflict Minerals) for the European data centre industry will reduce export and the environmental impact of ocean transport. Although this will localise pollution from road vehicles initially, it will decrease with the use of more ultra-low and zero-emission vehicles in Europe. Investment in recycling processes and infrastructure will positively accelerate their development, which will be economically beneficial as throughput increases and plants expand. Although an increasing demand for materials may increase landfill mining, higher recycling rates will limit this activity which is beneficial because recycling newer ‘clean’ waste is more economical. It will also make identification and tracking of components and materials simpler. These factors will all enhance quality monitoring and control of recyclates, as a result of which the market will grow and in many instances recyclates will become cheaper than virgin materials. In addition to recycling at end-of-life, product life extension through reuse and re-manufacture will be boosted as data sanitisation technologies improve and trust in the process is enhanced through demonstration and training events and publicity campaigns. Indirectly, this technology will simultaneously reduce component shredding, make recycling simpler and more efficient and increase CRM reclamation.

The expansion of Euro-centric reuse and recycling facilities will reduce waste flow to Africa, which will have an initial negative impact on local employment and income generation. However, the European industry will expand to the point where it can form legitimate partnerships and set up sites there; this will be advantageous because of the readily available workforce and being geographically closer to Europe than Asia. The partnerships will benefit from a combination of local (low-tech) and imported (high-tech) know-how and will create ethical, properly-paid jobs that enable locals to work in safe, non-hazardous environmentally-friendly conditions. Increased income will increase connectivity as smart devices and networks become affordable, which has the potential to reduce inequality between differing socioeconomic groups via access to education and health services. Furthermore, increased availability of quality controlled recycled materials and CRM will reduce demand for virgin Conflict Minerals. The combination of these factors will ensure long-term supply chain security and economic stability in the market for data centre equipment and services which will support uninterrupted service delivery.

The benefits of a sectoral Circular Economy are evident and hyperscalers such as Facebook and Google are already developing in-house circular practices, but there is currently nothing to support smaller providers. Developing a Circular Economy requires buy-in and knowledge exchange from experts and businesses from all life cycle stages across and associated with the sector but currently, members of the various sub-sectors work in silos.

The CEDaCI project was launched in January 2019 to tackle these many challenges and initiate a Circular Economy for the data centre industry as a whole, and smaller businesses in particular. Funded by ERDF / Interreg North West Europe, the project is led by London South Bank University and working with partners from industry, academia and non-profit organisations in the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands. It brings together experts from the various sub-sectors and life cycle stages including the Data Centre Association, and is already making waves.

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