In the first of Ethical IT’s series of blogs about how IT can, and should, be sustainable, we take a look at IT hardware: the impact it has on the environment, how we’re helping our clients make the right choices and what we think the future looks like when it comes to sustainable hardware. 

The IT sector is not renowned for being sustainable; we’re the first to admit it. However, we’re passionate about changing that perception. Many say that developments in technology will be the catalyst to help resolve the climate crisis and our mission is to be part of that change.

Just a glance at the World Economic Forum’s Tech Pioneers of 2020 is testament to how important tackling global warming is for so many technology entrepreneurs. We believe that every business should invest some time and effort into their IT systems, looking at ways to improve efficiency and energy consumption. The question is, how?

Nuts and bolts

Firstly, what do we mean by IT hardware? In our line of business, it is the physical kit that is needed to get a business going. It’s the techy, often complicated, equipment that most employees just want to be able to switch on and for it to work. 

Ethical IT supplies a full range of hardware for a wide variety of organisations. This includes workstations (desktop, laptops and tablets); network solutions (fibre and ethernet switches, access points, firewalls and routers); datacentre provisions (CAT6/fibre cabling, storage arrays and computation servers); cabling; any IT consumables and peripherals, such as printers; as well as CCTV security cameras and motion detectors. 

Unfortunately, much of this kit needs replacing regularly, which means the bulk of it ends up as so-called electronic and electrical waste or e-waste.

Environmental impact

The UN reported recently that some  50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated globally each year, weighing more than all of the commercial airliners ever made. Only 20% of this is formally recycled, which means 80% ends up as landfill.

If we carry on like this, global e-waste production is on track to reach 120 million tonnes per year by 2050, according to a report from the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the UN E-Waste Coalition. 

The solution is clearly to recycle, but the reality is that this can be complex. Millions of people across the world are thought to work informally recycling these materials through open burning, exposing themselves and the environment to toxic fumes, which then find their way into the water supply and food chain, poisoning animals and humans.

Value in e-waste

The UN believes the material value of this waste is worth at least £50bn, more than the GDP of most countries. There is 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore.

A large amount of the value of e-waste material is found within printed circuit boards, which are found in nearly all electronic equipment. There are up to 40 metals within the complex structure of a printed circuit board, including gold, copper as well as many rare earth materials, many of which are used in technology such as mobile phones. Many of these substances are running out due to their limited supply,  their location in conflict zones and the high rate that technology such as mobile phones are being thrown out.

Formal recycling of printed circuit boards has traditionally come with a large carbon footprint. Printed circuit boards can travel thousands of miles to refineries where they are burnt and a lot of the valuable material is lost.

Innovative solutions 

There are a number of businesses researching solutions to this problem. Ethical IT has recently joined forces with N2S, a leader in the pursuit of zero-waste technology. The company has collaborated with Coventry University to develop a way of harnessing BioTechnology to extract the valuable material within printed circuit boards in an environmentally friendly way. Find out more about this process here

N2S  is a strong advocate of the circular economy and extending the life of technology, which is why we’re delighted to be working with them. The team has a unique approach to IT recycling, using a refined process of dismantling each item to reduce cross-contamination and ensure every element is recycled correctly. Working in partnership with N2S, we help our clients reduce their carbon footprint, improve their environmental profile and meet government, industry and security regulations with N2S’s pioneering recycling service.

Sustainable laptops 

Another brilliant partner we work with is Circular Computing. The company is firmly rooted in the principles of the circular economy: it remanufactures laptops and desktop computers at its own remanufacturing facility, creating premium, enterprise-grade products that are certified carbon neutral and therefore “don’t cost the earth”. Many refurbished product suppliers claim to deliver the highest quality. Circular Computing goes further by embedding innovation, precision and market-leading standards into every step of its unique remanufacturing process. 

For those that would prefer to buy new, there are sustainable options. Ethical IT picked Dell as its supplier of laptops and desktops because of the company’s commitment to the environment. By 2030, Dell has pledged to recycle an equivalent product for every product a customer buys. It also aims to have 100% recycled or renewable packaging and more than half of its products will be made from recycled or renewable material.

Using renewable energy 

Even our networking partners are working on their environmental credentials. Ethical IT works closely with Cisco, which has been aggressively increasing its use of renewable energy. In the last fiscal year, it accounted for 80% of the company’s electricity use worldwide. By the end of 2020, it plans to eliminate one million tons of greenhouse gases from its supply chain.

Cisco’s collaboration solutions enable people to work remotely, which translates into less fuel burned on the ground and in the air. And the firm’s energy-efficient cloud solutions help businesses reduce their IT energy needs.

What does good look like? 

At Ethical IT, we’re very aware that whilst all these developments are laudable, we are a long way away from what ‘good’ looks like. There is work to be done, but we have made a start. 

We’re committed to being as transparent as possible about the issues within our sector. Just raising awareness about the impact IT has on the environment and inviting our clients to think about alternatives is already a major step in our quest to create a more sustainable future. Let’s work together and be the change our industry needs. Let’s use IT for good. 

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