IEMA Sustainability Impact Award Winners for Circular Economy 2020, Techbuyer discuss the impact of that the technology we use on a daily basis has on the environment in part one of their series on this topical issue.

There is no denying the positive impact of technology. From weather predictions fuelled by renewable energy to online shopping, technology has kept us all connected during the pandemic and is the driving force behind sustainable change including the 17 UN Global Goals. However, it’s impossible to ignore the damaging environmental cost of our technology.

Traditionally when discussing the energy usage and environmental impact of IT equipment, experts have focused on the use phase (once the IT device is plugged in). However, to gage the full picture, it is important to also look at the embodied energy of IT equipment, including the pre-use phase.

In the first part of our digital sobriety series, we discuss what makes up our IT equipment, what impact these materials have on the environment, and what we can do about it.

What do we mean by digital sobriety?

The ‘Lean ICT: Towards Digital Sobriety’, published by French carbon transition think-tank The Shift Project in 2019, aims to reduce the environmental impact of our technologies. The report states: ‘The share of digital technologies in global greenhouse gas emissions has increased by half since 2013, from 2.5% to 3.7% of global emissions. The demand for raw materials such as rare and critical metals, essential for both digital and low-carbon energy technologies, is also growing.’

In order words, digital usage is fast growing, and it is power and resource hungry. This directly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, which the Paris Agreement aims to reduce to a minimum rise of 1.5oC.

The report coined the term ‘digital sobriety’ which is a practical solution to limiting digital’s energy consumption increase. President of the project, Jean-Marc Jancovici describes this as “living happily ever after with what we already have”, by ‘buying the least powerful equipment possible, changing them as least often possible, and reducing unnecessary energy-intensive uses’.

To understand why digital sobriety is important, first we need to understand the embodied energy within our IT equipment.

Looking inside our IT equipment

Some electrics produce a lot of energy whilst being used. For instance, servers carry out data-intensive workloads to enable energy intensive activities like video streaming. But when you look at IT equipment such as laptops and desktops, the energy it uses is nothing compared to the amount of energy it took to produce before it reaches the consumer. This is called the pre-use phase – which digital sobriety aims to reduce.

Dell publishes a carbon footprint of every single device that it manufactures. The data reveals that the amount of carbon it takes to produce and transport the item varies from product to product, as does the proportion of embodied carbon.

For instance, the popular Dell R630 rack server has an estimated carbon footprint of 7,260 kg CO2e. Only 17.8% of this is generated in the pre-use phase (manufacturing, transportation, and EoL), but a whopping 82.2% of this is generated whilst the consumer uses the product. Compare this to a Dell Latitude 5401 laptop, which generates up to 344 kg CO2e. 81.8% of its carbon footprint is generated before it enters the consumer’s hands, and the remaining 18.2% is due to the use phase.

Producing just one server is estimated to generate almost one tonne of carbon emissions according to some estimates, but Dell reports it higher than this.

How is IT equipment made?

We know that manufacturing has a significant carbon cost, particularly for laptops. This cost is largely due to the precious metals and rare earths needed to manufacture IT – materials that are in short supply. As well as being mined in unsafe and low-paid conditions, these metals are often mined using energy intensive processes, which release carbon emissions and toxins. This means that the health and environmental cost of manufacturing is being felt most in the less economically developed countries mining the materials, thousands of miles away from its largest customers.

Manufacturing also has political tensions. China, the major manufacturer of precious metals, has been significantly cutting exports which means our IT equipment is dependent on supplies that are quickly running out.

Solutions for the consumer

So, now you know what happens before IT equipment reaches your hands, what can you do to reduce the impact of manufacturing?

One trend that The Shift Project discusses in Lean ICT: Towards Digital Sobriety is refreshing digital devices far before their end of life. Essentially this means that IT equipment is used for a short amount of time and then thrown away, despite being useful for far longer. To bring our digital energy consumption increase down, we must make the most of what we already have.

Recycling used IT equipment is one method, however it’s difficult to recover Critical Raw Materials (materials identified as in low or politically unstable supply, including silicon metal). It also does nothing to reduce the energy consumption in the pre-use phase. There are technology improvements being developed to improve the recovery of materials from e-waste, but for now reusing is our next best option.

Upgrading your existing equipment is an easy way to gain performance as good as new, without having to buy new. For example, rather than discarding a laptop after three years (which is common practice for today’s businesses), the average laptop can perform for up to seven years when regularly upgraded. Companies like ours can often help with this by providing component level upgrades and spares, and also the expertise to refurbish the devices at their facilities if needed.

The same is true for server, storage and networking equipment, which can be upgraded with new or refurbished or third party components. This enables the same performance as new, without the cost of replacing your entire system.

Choosing refurbished

Refurbished IT equipment is used technology that has been restored to a condition as good as new. It comes with a manufacturer equivalent warranty and is reconditioned under strict, pre-set processes including testing and data erasure to guarantee excellent quality. Buying refurbished is a great option for when you eventually do need to replace your existing technology.

Choosing the sustainable option doesn’t mean comprising on quality – in fact this couldn’t be further from the truth. Recent research with the University of East London proves that refurbished servers perform as well as new, and in some cases outperform the current generation. Although this research focused on servers, the paper discusses the performance of CPUs, which are also within laptops and desktops.

Refurbished tech also comes with a range of other benefits including compatibility with existing IT systems, access to equipment no longer in the new market, and fast turnaround times.

What about IT equipment I no longer want?

When you are faced with old computers or laptops taking up space, consider sending them for reuse. There are a range of secure refurbishment specialists available that will give your devices a second life – the most ethical solution out there for used IT equipment – whilst protecting your data to the highest standards available.

When choosing where to send your used technology, we recommend looking out for the latest certifications in the ITAD industry. The ISO 14001 accreditation and the R2:2013 (Responsible Recycling) standards demonstrate excellent environmental responsibility, and the ADISA accreditation is the leading security standard in the UK.

The best case is always to reuse IT equipment, but if you choose the right company, they will send any IT parts that cannot be refurbished for ethical recycling.

Stay tuned for part two…

In this article we have discussed the carbon footprint of IT equipment, digital sobriety, and how to make the most of our existing devices. In the second article of our three-part series, find out where data centres come into the equation…

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the contributing individual, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated.

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Techbuyer Sustainability Team

Techbuyer is a sustainable IT solutions provider with offices in the UK, North America, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand. Techbuyer helps businesses maximise their IT budgets by supplying cost-effective new and quality refurbished servers, storage, memory and networking equipment from over 150 brands including HPE, Dell, IBM and Cisco.

It sells a large range of enterprise IT hardware, and also buys used parts to turn them into high quality refurbished IT equipment. You can find out more about the company here.