Sustainable IT Must Become More About e-Waste, Not Just Energy
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by David Moschella
When it comes to environmental sustainability, the information technology industry’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The flip side of our industry’s relentless technological progress is rapid product obsolescence and ever-rising piles of electronic waste (e-waste). Put simply, Moore’s Law, the driving dynamic behind IT innovation for nearly five decades, is fundamentally not green, and perhaps not even sustainable — at least, not yet.
We have been making this point since our first Position Paper on ‘Green IT’ back in early 2008. But the results of our latest sustainability research project have reconfirmed that, while the IT industry appears on track to be energy-neutral in terms of its net energy consumption and savings, there is still no credible scenario for safely managing the global production and disposal of literally billions of personal computers, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.
Our sustainability research has always stressed the need to take a holistic environmental approach that accounts for the production, consumption, application, and disposal of IT products. In 2008, we learned that all of the world’s data centers, PCs, and networks accounted for just 2 percent of total world energy consumption (and just 1.3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions).
Based on a variety of sources, we also estimated that manufacturing and distributing these same high-tech products (while much less discussed) required a roughly equivalent 2 percent of the world’s energy share. Therefore, from a holistic energy perspective, if the application of IT could save just 5 percent of the remaining 96 percent of world energy usage, it could offset its own current consumption and production requirements, since (.05 x .96) > (.02 + .02). Many would argue that these savings have already occurred.
But, as the energy used in producing and consuming IT continues to grow considerably faster than energy usage in the wider economy, we think that within five years, a 10-percent savings may well be needed to maintain this type of energy-neutral position.1
To better understand the energy-saving benefits of IT and the means and likelihood of achieving these savings targets, in 2009 we commissioned and sponsored a special issue of Yale University’s Journal of Industrial Ecology to look specifically at Environmental Applications of Information and Communications Technology (EAICT).
IT industry’s top priority
Through this project we found that while progress will be slow and there is no single dominant environmental application for IT, the evidence suggests our modest energy-neutrality target of 5-10 percent savings across the broader economy is clearly achievable, but significant gains beyond this will likely take time to develop.
This is why we believe from a sustainability perspective, the top IT industry priority in the near term should be better handling of the pollutants and toxic substances associated with IT production and disposal, especially the latter. To see why, let’s look at the three classes of IT benefits in more detail:
- Optimization. For many years, we have heard about smart products, smart buildings, smart cities, and even smart planets, but how real and measurable are the benefits? The EAICT project features papers in four areas: the use of semiconductors in the overall economy, smart equipment in small and medium-sized businesses, smart irrigation and water-use systems, and intelligent residential energy auditing. While there is real potential in each area and there are many stories in the marketplace about major savings, the actual results in these cases were mixed. The research shows that smart products and equipment can have relatively short payback periods, but the benefits are often not much greater than would be realized by just keeping existing equipment well maintained. Researchers also found the economics of smart irrigation systems are generally not attractive outside of high-cost water markets such as the American Southwest, and, given today’s technology, few households are willing to put in the time and effort needed to accurately monitor their residential electricity usage.
- Behavior. While most behavioral change research focuses on the individual, the four EAICT project papers in this area assessed more systematic possibilities: environmental metrics, industrial ecology, mapping/visualization, and complex systems modeling. Again, the results were mixed. By scientific community standards, the environmental field has been slow to adopt modern Web 2.0 tools, and thus a great deal of knowledge is still stuck in various silos, many of them off-line. Ideally, open, semantic web-based technologies would allow sustainability information to flow freely between companies, industries, and nations, but this is still rare. This makes it hard for much-hoped-for developments such as industrial symbiosis, where one industry’s waste is another’s input, to emerge. Visual mapping software (showing, for example, how the type and intensity of energy usage varies geographically) can be a powerful policy tool, but modeling the net impact of policy changes in complex environments such as Tokyo is a daunting challenge. At an individual level, the emergence of improved guides, information, and peer pressure is reshaping behavior, but not as fast as desirable. As with optimization, the overall rate of behavioral change is slow and uneven.
- Dematerialization. This is where big gains can be quickly realized. Of course, within the computer industry, we tend to use the word ‘virtualization.’ But as virtualization is used in so many different — and often ambiguous — ways, ‘dematerialization’ is the more precise term. The EAICT journal features an analysis of traditional and digital music delivery alternatives. But even in this most familiar and straightforward of net benefit examples, hard data can be elusive. For example, while the overall finding is that digital music delivery is 40 to 80 percent more energy-efficient than the traditional CD retail store, most of the savings come from eliminating the energy used by the customer in driving to the store. If customers also make other stops on the trip, the savings are much less clear. The savings would also shrink substantially if the quality of the digital music and album artwork — and thus the size of the required audio and graphics files — were raised to standard CD quality, but this won’t happen until our underlying network and storage technologies are more capable.
Yet despite these measurement ambiguities, we think dematerialization will have an increasingly strong impact. Consider the way smartphones are already replacing so many physical products — cameras, music players, calendars, tape recorders, compasses, maps, books, newspapers, watches, alarms, and even PCs — or the way cloud computing is enabling virtual environments to replace their physical counterparts — data centers, office space, meeting rooms, hotels, stores, malls, theaters, and so on.
The lessons from the EAICT project suggest that while the accumulated first-, second-, and third-order effects of these shifts will probably never be precisely measurable, they should be enough to credibly get us to our 10 percent energy savings target, particularly when combined with the optimization and behavioral gains described above. This means that the overall IT energy savings/consumption balance is likely to be positive over time.
Today’s e-waste disaster
It is against this modest, but generally optimistic picture that the horrors of today’s e-waste disposal practices stand out so starkly. While the IT industry will increasingly show that it is, at worst, energy-neutral in its operations, from a pollutant/toxic substance perspective our industry is creating huge environmental problems that are still getting worse, and for which no real solution has yet emerged.
We all know that electronic equipment (and especially older devices) contains a scary mix of toxic substances: lead, mercury, arsenic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and more. We also know that, while progress is being made, environmentally safe electronic devices are still a Silicon Valley dream that is probably at least five years away.
But even if this goal is some day realized, we still need to safely dispose of the billions of devices in circulation, and the billions more that will be sold before safe solutions are ubiquitous. While Europe has made some real strides here (at least legislatively), even it has a long way to go. In contrast, the U.S., Asia (with the exception of Japan), and most of the developing world continue to rely mostly on landfill and manual, dangerous, and often illegal e-waste scavenging processes, often carried out by children in the poorest of nations and circumstances.
Many advocacy groups, such as Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network, are calling attention to the worst of these practices, but the lack of government and IT industry urgency is striking. We can think of at least six reasons why society’s Green IT priorities have been skewed toward energy consumption and away from the increasingly pressing e-waste challenge:
1. The risks of global warming/climate change have made energy use and related emissions the core of the environmental movement, effectively crowding out other concerns.
2. In developed economies, the cost of extracting toxic substances from retired electronic products often substantially exceeds the resulting value, making this an unattractive business.
3. Governments have been reluctant to seriously regulate the fast-moving and prosperous IT industry, especially in the U.S. and Asia.
4. The emphasis on reducing server and PC power consumption is appealing to IT manufacturers as it helps convince customers to buy new equipment. In contrast, an emphasis on the adverse effects of rapid product obsolescence and e-waste would tend to have the opposite effect.
5. IT customers have been advised that outsourcing recycling to a specialist firm is an industry best practice and have had little incentive or ability to assess what actually happens to various ‘recycled’ IT products.
6. The public remains largely uninformed and apathetic, especially outside of Europe. Many people simply don’t realize there is anything wrong with throwing out old IT products in their everyday trash.
For these reasons, much of the IT community has turned a blind eye toward some truly appalling global practices and conditions, with the developing world too often used as an e-waste dumping ground. While we expect awareness of this situation to improve sharply during 2011 and beyond, we see little evidence that suppliers, governments, and customers are prepared to give this issue the focus and commitment it requires. A comprehensive book on the subject2 is reviewed in the EAICT journal.
A strategy for realigning priorities
We think the current e-waste situation is unsustainable, and must become a high priority for the IT industry. This suggests the following overall customer understanding and strategy in each of the three sustainability areas covered in this commentary:
- Reduce IT power consumption. This is a good thing for companies to do, both to help the environment and to save money.
- Use IT to reduce energy usage elsewhere in your ecosystem. While dematerialization (virtualization) is generally the biggest energy-saving opportunity today, smart products and behavioral change should also be part of a strategy.
- Reduce and properly dispose of e-waste. More pressure should be put on vendors to produce environmentally friendly IT products. But in the interim, companies and individuals must follow more sustainable disposal processes.
Most observers believe achieving these goals on a societal scale will require significant legislative and public support. Neither seems imminent.
Ever since the global recession took hold in 2008, many environmentalists have understandably lamented the lost momentum of the climate change movement. Consider the worldwide hopes for Kyoto, the dashed expectations of Copenhagen, and the limited interest in the recent meetings in Cancun. But if there can be a silver lining to this decline, it is the chance that the current loss of focus on climate change will create the space for the e-waste crisis to get the attention it requires.
1 To get a sense of the many complexities involved in these sorts of calculations, see Lorenz Erdmann and Lorenz M. Hilty, Scenario Analysis: Exploring the Macroeconomic Impacts of Information and Communication Technologies on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Volume 14 Issue 5 p. 826-843, October 2010
2 Ronald E. Hester and Roy M. Harrison (Editors), Electronic Waste Management: Design, Analysis and Application, Springer/Royal Society of Chemistry, 2009
DAVID MOSCHELLA is research director of CSC’s LEF Executive Programme.