Circularity and supply chain disruption - a good result from a bad situation?

We took part in a recent DataCenter Dynamics (DCD) Panel discussion titled: Circularity and supply chain disruption - a good result from a bad situation? 

Astrid Wynne, Sustainability Lead, represented Techbuyer, and this blog post will provide an overview of that discussion. Also taking part was Deborah Andrews, School of Engineering, London South Bank University & CEDaCI Project and Jeffery Paliga, Panduit.  

The aim of the panel was to review how data centers have embraced extended product life cycle assessments thus far, giving second life to hardware and to discuss how circularity could help to further reduce environmental impact.


Product Life Extension 

We started out the discussion with talking about product life extension, and how it is used as a model in the circular economy. This model demonstrates the important of making things last as long as possible and to only recycle when a product has truly reached the end of its life.

The issue that arises with end of life servers has to do with the breadth of materials that are used in the manufacture of servers. Current recycling technology unfortunately does not exist to recover every single one of the critical materials that make up a server. These critical materials are becoming increasingly scarce. By buying refurbished equipment, we pointed out that you are in essence buying time for recycling technology to catch up, so that one day it might be able to recover these critical (and scarce) materials.  

Another way to foster the adoption of sustainable IT practices is within procurement. Procurement professionals, for example, can ask for better practices. In this way, it would be the consumer side driving the necessary change. Another way in which consumers can drive change is to be asking more questions of government and to push for a two-way conversation between users and manufacturers. The Ecodesign Directive was originally about energy efficiency measures and was expanded to cover second use as well and servers were specifically listed. Manufacturers were obliged to make software updates available from 2-8 years after manufacturing date, which makes a second life possible with a new user. 


Critical Raw Materials 

In March of this year, Techbuyer became a full partner in a multi-million Interreg-funded project Circular Economy in the Data Center Industry (CEDaCI). This project aims to chart a pathway towards increased circularity for servers, reducing waste, and limiting the resources required to manufacture new ICT. A particular focus of the project is Critical Raw Materials.

Raw materials are present in most technology and are crucial to the wider economy. Dependable and unobstructed access to many raw materials is a real concern worldwide. The United States has existing mineral resources and is also a leading global producer of materials. However, the US also imports a large percentage of many materials that are critical to manufacturing, sometimes from nations with the dominant share of a material’s global production and export. In 2018, the Department of the Interior published a list of 35 critical raw materials, 14 of which the US is 100% reliant on the import of and include graphite, manganese, niobium, rare earths, and tantalum. 

Shortage of critical raw materials could have a serious knock-on effect for a range of sectors. It’s important to note that the renewable energy infrastructure relies on these materials too. The aim to achieve a net-zero carbon emissions goal will be significantly hindered if we can’t access the materials required to create renewable energy technologies.  

It’s clear that we must transition as soon as possible from a linear, “make-use-dispose” model to one built on circular principles, where resources are reused and recycled. In turn, this would accelerate the decarbonisation of the economy, cut waste, and reduce dependency on imports of raw materials.  


DC Energy Usage 

In the final section of the panel discussion, Astrid outlined how we can make equipment last longer and get increased performance but also reduce energy usage.  

Earlier this year, our research with the University of East London was added to the world-leading academic publication, the IEEE Transactions on Sustainable Computing. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is the world’s largest technical professional organisation dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity.

To provide a brief overview of the research, it was evidenced that CPU trends show less efficiency at low power mode for later machines. What this means for data center managers, is that if you buy a high-powered machine and don’t use it, you are massively overspending on the electricity bill and on carbon. Astrid introduced the car analogy and explained that in other words, don’t use a sports car to drive to the supermarket. To read more about our findings on the slowdown of increased CPU efficiencies and how this impacts server trends, access our paper here.  

We finished the panel with the following final recommendation; to improve the circularity of the IT economy, we need better knowledge and idea sharing and much more openness and transparency.