The importance of sustainable IT
In the underground on my way out of London to Frankfurt I saw many adverts for Backmarket, a business-to-consumer platform for refurbished tech, and in the Frankfurt main station there was a sign for ‘Digital for Germany’, highlighting how digital has a key role to make Germany greener. The association of using technology to make us greener has been around a long time, but that technology itself can be greener is now coming slowly into the minds of society.
The conference was a relatively humble affair, a far cry from the tens of thousands of visitors I’ve seen at Cisco or other tech conferences which promote shiny new tech, and not helped by the latest COVID rules. The Global eWaste conference and expo is a more targeted event, historically focussing on recovering materials from eWaste and the challenges faced in this industry. But now, with eWaste dumps making the news, campaigns to extend the life of electricals and the right to repair movement growing in magnitude, eWaste has become more of a mainstream issue and more relevant than ever as people become familiar with the problem.
The audience comprised some academics and government policy makers, but mostly recyclers themselves and those who support that industry with machinery and capability.
This industry is mature at some levels, with several big players talking about 100-year histories, but the industry faces many challenges particularly in terms of proving its credentials in actually making a greener planet.
The role of government and entrepreneurs
There was lots of discussion about government intervention, and concerns about how developed countries are actually exporting harm and on the flip side many that say this intervention is preventing more recycling from happening by infringing on innovation and entrepreneurial drive. At other levels it’s an industry trying to keep up with the incredible speed of change. I spoke to one academic who is struggling to find even one company in Europe that recycles solar panels, one of the technologies we hope will help us combat global warming, and no one appears to be closing the loop. Again, technology develops so fast, but the technology hasn’t always been developed with ‘sustainable by design’ principles.
The most common approach is to shred all the eWaste material that comes in and sort it, be it plastics, metals, and other materials extracted out of white goods, batteries, solar panels, and of course mobiles, laptops and other IT. As I type on my laptop this feels a somehow brutal and barbaric approach to the expensive, delicate and incredibly complex piece of technology we invest so much in to make. In fact, this process is not even that effective at getting the materials back out of eWaste, as it’s extremely difficult with at best ~45% of materials being recovered in Europe and only ~17% worldwide, and only a few of those recovered are the rarest, most needed materials.
So, more must be done to stop these high planetary cost products being ground down whilst there is still life in them. We must take a more circular approach to IT and get maximum utility from what we have.
At governmental level, new legislation is slowly moving through Europe with France looking to lead the way with a durability index for products and targeting a high proportion of product reuse, but this is not a centralised solution across the whole EU, although policy makers are trying to encourage a 20% adoption of refurbished equipment. The United Kingdom has already passed this legislation.
A couple of big changes to watch out for:
Digital Product Passports – expected to come into play towards the end of next year will require products to travel with a digital description of what they are and where they come from.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) – where countries will begin to put the responsibility for waste and packaging, including waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) responsibilities. This may well be passed down to resellers like us if products are sold on marketplaces like Amazon. Expectation is that this may come into life as soon as January 2023 for France and July 2023 for Germany.
There was also plenty of discussion around demand for raw materials for technology going up rapidly, such as a 16x demand increase for Lithium in the next 10 years, and traditional supply going down. Our planet’s resources will run out based on current consumption rates, which is why a more sustainable approach to IT is needed.
The Circular Economy offers a solution
Quite a lot was mentioned on the Circular Economy but few discussed more than one part of it, giving the feeling that the industry is very fragmented with lots of parts but little in the way of end-to-end solutions. KPMG ran a session highlighting a statistic I had heard elsewhere which is, as a planet we are only 8.6% circular today, that means only 8.6% of all the materials produced are kept within the economy. They also covered a case study with KPN, a Dutch telecommunications company, who have succeeded in using the Circular Transition Indicators (CTI) framework [https://ctitool.com/cti-framework-2/] to measure and improve their circularity.
A lot of investment is going into the Circular Economy, and the European Innovation Council will finance grants for research and tools.
The Global Electronics Council (GEC) is a not-for-profit that is trying to create greater buying power to change OEM behaviour, creating ecolabels like EPEAT, and working closely with certification bodies to do this.
Sims Lifecycle Services [https://www.simslifecycle.com/] presented their business approach and their progress. They have a purpose to “create a world without waste to preserve our planet”, and went some way to empathise collaboration; wanting to work with others with a similar purpose. They have been part of some large groups trying to address the Circular Economy in electronics. The Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP) [www.cep2030.org] is a significant example, and aims to bring organisations together to tackle some of the fragmentation in tech, consumer goods, and waste management. The CEP positions itself as a circular IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) organisation, dealing in data centres, infrastructure (telco), and devices. They have helped 2.1 million assets be repurposed in 2020.
Several organisations shared interest in the possibilities for incorporating non-new and sustainable materials in new products, and expressed concern that demand for recycled plastics massively exceeds supply.
It was fun to see eWaste art on show throughout the event venue, which seems to be becoming its own niche. This reminded me that a friend of mine has a ring made from gold salvaged from a circuit board found in eWaste
It was the second time I’ve met Steve Morriss, the founder of Close the Loop, an organisation which does waste compensation. For a small fee, they will take an item out of the waste stream and fully recycle it. Steve and I have previously discussed this being an upsell on all our sales, giving people the chance to know the product they have bought is waste neutral. Something very easy and tangible – we’ll be speaking to our customers to see if they are keen!
My panel session
I ran a panel session on what is holding people back from buying non-new products and IT equipment, and the top conclusions were:
Lack of education / awareness.
Belief non-new tech won’t have the functionality / capability of new.
Lack of clear upside over just handling negatives; hard to sell risk mitigation or compliance.
Not seen as attractive as new (not sexy/luxurious); a real need to be better at telling the story, making people proud to reuse something.
Concerns about safety of data.
Seen as too hard or not beneficial enough.
I have felt these concerns over the last 13 years across our business. As an industry that needs to promote extended life, we all need to work harder to reassure users that non-new technology performs as new, and I am delighted that we are running two research projects in this space to prove just that, the results of which we will share in 2022/ 2023.
This is quite different to the insights we saw in the CapGemini and IBM Reports, especially the IBM research which showed many global IT leaders routinely used non-new IT equipment particularly in mission critical environments, and that they expected their use of non-new IT to grow.
My presentation focused on our view that eWaste is not just the material at the end, but the entire waste stream from extraction to disposal, and that complementary channels for re-use reduce waste through the whole stream. I shared case studies from our work with the Ministry of Defence and Cisco on how scalable extending life with remanufactured technology can be.
I left the conference more confident than ever, that we’ll see real momentum in making IT more sustainable in 2022.
*It was fascinating to see the emissions reduction by taking the train, rather than flying from London to Frankfurt (Source: ecopassenger.org)