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IT’s Role in Sustainability and E-Waste

In an era when enterprises are concerned about sustainability, IT is still a primary source of electronic waste. How concerned should IT be about sustainability and e-waste?

E-waste consists of electronic products that are unwanted, not working, and nearing or at the end of their “useful life.” This waste can include obsolete computers, smartphones, routers, cables, disk drives, and other technology equipment that have reached the end of their usefulness.

IT is a major source of e-waste in enterprises. At some point, old equipment must be abandoned, but does it warrant a formal plan as to how to go about it? Today’s sustainability pressures say, “Yes.” IT, and those who lead it, should exercise responsible practices when they consider how to rid themselves of e-waste and practice sustainability.

It’s why Microsoft has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2030, and why IT consultancies like Accenture have committed to becoming net-zero in waste and water goals by 2025.

“An Accenture survey of 3,200 executives found that over 80% of CIOs and CTOs believe sustainability can impact growth strategy, cost optimization, organizational design and a host of other critical areas of business development,” said Accenture in an August blog. “In fact, new Accenture research shows that 48% of companies say technology-led sustainability initiatives lead to increased revenues from better products and enhanced customer experience, and by attracting top talent.”

IT’s ‘Front and Center’ Role in E-Waste and Sustainability

In the US, data centers consume 0.8% of total electricity and 2% of electricity in commercial buildings, according to research by the Uptime Institute.

“I can tell when a new data center comes online,” said one West Coast utility manager to me recently. “The energy consumption in the system immediately spikes.”

Companies know this, too. Whenever they are confronted with regulatory or commercial requirements to reduce their e-waste and carbon footprints, they immediately turn to the CIO and the data center to meet these goals.

The reason is simple. Economizing energy in the data center is one of the most impactful ways to reduce carbon footprints. Data center carbon can be reduced by cutting down the number of servers and disk drives that you use, rearranging HVAC cooling in the data center so it hits the hot spots hardest, and offloading data and processing to the cloud.

How Sustainability and E-Waste Fit in the IT Strategy

ESG (environmental, social, governance), which originally grew out of the environmental movement in the 1960s, is now a centerpiece of public and private policy because of the climate change challenges we face. Pressure is building on companies from their shareholders, who want to know what those companies are doing to better the environment by reducing carbon emissions and recycling waste.

In some cases, governments and large enterprise clients are pushing ESG initiatives. Government does this through regulation. Large enterprises do this by requiring their smaller suppliers to develop ESG initiatives to earn their business.

Since IT is such a highly targeted area in companies for meeting environmental stewardship requirements, it behooves CIOs to include e-waste and sustainability in their strategic IT plans.

Common strategic initiatives that address sustainability in IT include:

  • End of life equipment disposition. Is IT maximizing equipment through all phases of its life cycles? When it is time to discard equipment, is the equipment being recycled or disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner?
  • Technology direction. Are technologies such as data center virtualization and HVAC cooling being optimized to reduce energy consumption?
  • Data processing and storage. Is the processing and storage of data being optimized for energy efficiency?
  • Vendor selection. Is IT choosing vendors that practice environmental stewardship?

Putting E-Waste and Sustainability Practices to Work

For companies that are in the early stages of ESG work, the initial step should be assessment. In IT, this means surveying the data center and also the IT networks, equipment and Internet of Things (IoT) devices that are installed around the enterprise.

Is there technology that is outmoded, or not in service at all? In the data center, are cooling systems working well? Are storage and processing resources being optimized so none are sitting idle or underutilized? Are vendors required to provide sustainability and e-waste statements on what they are doing to render their products and services more sustainable? Are you purchasing green technology?

For most companies, there are likely to be “holes” in some of these areas that need to be filled with policies and procedures, and staff need to be trained in them.

An assessment of where you are, whether done internally or with an outside consultant, can help to identify these areas. From there, you can develop an action plan.

The Case for Sustainability and E-Waste Initiatives

In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began setting regulations for sustainability and clean energy. The ability to meet these guidelines will likely impact which companies receive federal contracts. By 2021, 15 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia had begun to set sustainability goals.

Even if corporate stakeholders aren’t concerned about e-waste and sustainability today, they will be tomorrow. Sustainability and e-waste initiatives can begin with recycling old equipment and purchasing newer, green equipment. In some cases, data center activities can be moved to the cloud. In other cases, sustainable product and service requirements can be inserted into vendor RFPs.

If these elements are missing from the IT strategic plan, it's time for CIOs to consider adding them.

What to Read Next:

How to Launch a Green Computing Initiative That Really Makes a Difference

New Tools Measure Green IT, Sustainability Success

Cloud Monitoring Tools Help CIOs Reduce Carbon Footprint

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