Circular Economy

How data centres can join the circular economy to become greener

Image shows wires protruding from a data centre illustrating how energy intensive they are and why they should become part of the circular economy.                                                                                                                         illustrating how energy intensive they are and showing why hejn

Data centres are energy intensive, but by becoming part of the circular economy they become a lot more sustainable. Image: Unsplash/Jordan Harrison

Carsten Baumann
Director Strategic Initiatives & Solution Architect, Schneider Electric
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Circular Economy

  • As the demand for data centres increases, they must be made more sustainable.
  • Joining the circular economy could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of data centres.
  • When data centres become part of the circular economy they should see a positive impact on their bottom line too.

Information technology (IT) departments play an underrated role in the sustainability movement. With edge computing investments expected to grow 15% year-on-year in 2022, data centre capacity and energy demands are continuing to increase, and businesses must consider the environmental impact of this.

This is where the circular economy comes in – defined by the founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a “framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.” Discussions in every industry across the globe are closing in on the importance of sustainability, with the circular economy being a central element of these talks.

Companies are left wondering how they can operate more sustainably and make changes that will please all stakeholders. Prioritizing circular operations is a key way for technology companies to accomplish their sustainability goals and optimize their business strategies for a greener future. IT leaders must now shift their thinking and implement sustainable, reusable, or recyclable technologies from the start.

Historically, data centre equipment has been anything but circular, as experts assert that the design life of a data centre is only 10-15 years. Replacing costly, energy-intensive equipment every decade or so lands a major hit on the environment and is something that many companies fail to notice and correct.

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Creating data centres for the circular economy

The IT industry needs to consider the entire lifecycle of IT and critical infrastructure equipment when building new data centres, including edge data centres, rather than waiting until equipment reaches end-of-life and is put out of use. Placing a greater focus on the lifecycle assessment of IT infrastructure at the edge not only helps organizations meet sustainability KPIs but also positively impacts their bottom line. When looking to transition towards this circular approach, there are several unsung strategies companies should adopt to implement hardware that meets sustainability standards.

Circular economy practices
The value chain that makes up the circular economy Image: United Nations Industrial Development Organization

Sustainable from the start

To efficiently make the switch from a linear to a circular economy IT decision-makers should adopt the following tactics:

Consider alternatives to buying new when looking to replace equipment

Opting for remanufactured, refurbished, or used equipment and parts is not just less costly but can also produce lower emissions compared to buying new products. Purchasing refurbished equipment prevents the need for extracting raw materials to create new equipment, ultimately reducing the environmental impact. This also promotes the cyclical nature of the circular economy, as more demand for refurbished products keeps old equipment in use for longer.

An alternative to buying new equipment is retrofitting older equipment. To increase the lifespan of mission-critical hardware, IT departments can proactively upgrade their equipment. Monitors and sensors could be added, for example, to make maintenance predictable and cut downtime, contributing to equipment health and reducing the total cost of ownership. This can even be done in a greener, more cost-effective manner by asking suppliers for recycled materials. Many organizations may find that their supplier offers recycled options.

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Work with vendors and organizations with circular initiatives

Several companies, such as Cisco, have committed to the circular economy by agreeing to take back their used products to keep them out of landfills. This addresses the IT industry's end-of-life problem and offers smaller businesses lower-cost equipment.

Businesses can also look for vendors that use environmentally friendly products. Green products are typically designed to help organizations minimize their carbon footprint and use less energy. They also tend to be easier to refurbish or recycle than standard hardware.

Engaging with external partners to take advantage of existing best practices and wisdom is a good idea too. This is particularly useful when enacting changes to improve sustainability efforts. Partners with similar sustainability goals can provide unique support to companies looking to make this change.

Install sustainable prefabricated modular solutions

Ready-to-use modular solutions are sustainably made data centres with preassembled systems. As they come with only the necessary materials, these solutions speed up the time to deployment and make it easier for organizations to implement edge data centre expansions, while reducing waste.

Strategizing for a greener future

Although IT departments have not typically spearheaded sustainability efforts, the time for change is here as the world moves away from the "cradle to grave” mindset that hurts the planet to a more “cradle to cradle” approach.

Considering the sheer amount of carbon and heat that data centres generate, IT departments have a big role to play in reducing the waste produced by their operations. Following best practices to embed an organization within the circular economy is a great way for IT departments to save money and prepare for a future that will not tolerate excess waste.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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