In this guest article, Astrid Wynne, Sustainability Lead at Techbuyer, givens an update on the status of the EU’s “Circular Economy for the Data Centre Industry” (CEDaCI) project, a four-and-a-half-year research project which looks at ways in which a circular approach to server design, manufacture, use, and recycling can reduce the environmental impact of data centres.
The Interreg NWE funded “Circular Economy for the Data Centre Industry” (CEDaCI) project held its 14th Co-creation Workshop this May. It was the first since the project extended to Luxembourg, Belgium, and Ireland, now covering seven countries in North-West Europe. As a full partner, Techbuyer attended alongside representatives from Free ICT Europe – the non-profit body that promotes fair and open markets at EU Ccommission level – who also recently became full partners in the project.
CEDaCI is a four-and-a-half-year research project that brings together academics and members of the data centre industry. The focus of the study is the environmental impact of creating a circular approach to server design, manufacture, use, and recycling with a particular focus on the EU’s Critical Raw Materials (CRMs). Servers were chosen because the way they are made, the materials they include, and their energy draw create some of the largest environmental and social impacts of the data centre industry. The project has now been running three years and has generated a blueprint for circular server design, comparative lifecycle analysis for product life extension and recycling, and a decision-making tool for those in the industry.
The big picture
Currently, global data traffic is estimated to be at around 4.2 trillion gigabytes per year. Around 55% of the global population are now connected to the internet, and this proportion is expected to rise dramatically over the coming years. With more and more functions online – from banking to education and healthcare – the internet is seen as a pathway towards economic development and equality. More and more resources are being allocated to “bridging the digital divide” between those who can and cannot access connected devices.
This has a knock-on effect on the data centre sector, which is expected to grow 300% by 2025 in the EU and 500% globally by 2030. The data processing capability comes from the servers, which is the focus of CEDaCI research. Gartner says 120m new servers were delivered between 2019 and 2022. It is difficult to see how this will grow with the increased number of data centres because many of the hyperscale data centres purchase new CPUs over entire machines. However, we can say with confidence that demand for servers and components will increase.
At a materials level, this means an associated increase in demand on precious metals like gold and copper as well as CRMs like cobalt and lithium. With many of these materials also required for the development of renewable energy infrastructure such as wind turbines and solar panels, society needs to do what it can to make best use of these resources. We need to develop a circular approach to IT provision if we are to reap the benefits long term.
The legislative landscape
The European Commission adopted the new circular economy action plan (CEAP) in March 2020. Part of the European Green Deal, it lists 35 actions across the categories of a sustainable product policy framework, key product value chains, less waste, more value, making circularity work, and cross cutting actions. 24 of these actions relate to the data centre sector. In addition to this, Lot 9 of the EU Ecodesign Directive has specific requirements for extending the lifecycle of servers with stipulations around firmware updates, data erasure, and materials reporting.
New project partner Free ICT Europe gave a short presentation on these and other pieces of legislation at EU level at the meeting. Free ICT Europe promotes and represents the ICT secondary market in the development of EU legislation. As such, the organisation is helping to frame the policy recommendations that come from CEDaCI over the coming months. With the CEDaCI project now covering the UK, Netherlands, France, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, it is creating a network in six EU member states. Frontline research on the materials content and impact of servers (the first of its kind to be carried out) will be useful for the development of the various frameworks under development at Commission level. These include procedures on Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE), Reuse of Electronic and Electrical Equipment (REEE), the Data Centre Code of Conduct and its use of circular economy recommendations, and an ongoing commitment to promoting small and medium-sized businesses.
Free ICT Europe also highlighted other policy areas that CEDaCI’s work touches on. The Right to Repair legislation has historically focused on consumer products. However, with the B2B market representing 65% of ICT spending, the impact of enterprise equipment should be considered. So too should the concept of “Product as a Service” and its influence on the concept of ownership. In one sense this could be seen to promote circular economy. However, if products are replaced by the manufacturer and the old versions sent for recycling, this would have a less beneficial effect than in-house refurbishment or sale to the secondary market. We look forward to discussion on this point as the project progresses.
Project pilots update
Researchers from London South Bank University revealed detail on Pilot A of the CEDaCI project, the blueprint for a circular server. 80% of a product’s environmental impact is decided in the design phase, which influences how reusable and recyclable a product is as well as how many materials that create toxic by-products are included. The team added to the principles set out by documents such as the Ecodesign Directive with reverse engineering of servers to identify areas of improvement in fan design. The work has also informed the development of the free-to-use “Circular Data Centre Compass” (CDCC), which will be available soon.
Pilot B, which focuses on the lifecycle assessment of servers and product life extension is our area of expertise at Techbuyer. We contributed information on product processing, purchase, and recycling costs from our operations alongside quantifiable calculations on the energy usage, associated cost, and CO2e emissions associated with the use phase from our sister company Interact. This was used to support our Discussion of the Triple Bottom Line Benefits of Server Refurbishment , which was part of the CEDaCI presentation pack at LCM21. This was recently published by academic group EDP sciences on open access. The data also fed into the CDCC mentioned above.
French company TND has been leading the work on Pilot C, which focuses on increased material recovery with innovative recycling technologies. The project was given an overview of mechanical, pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical approaches to the recovery of metals and rare earths. The latter two processes are under development, and it is hoped they will increase the proportion of materials such as a cobalt and tantalum that can be recovered from ICT. Long term, recycling should provide a viable alternative to mining the large scope of raw materials needed for server manufacture.
Training and dissemination: Call for SMEs to join the training programmes
One of the key CEDaCI deliverables is training and skills provision for SMEs in North-West Europe. To date, the project has delivered six online training sessions, with 102 companies and 30 SMEs in attendance. The next session is planned on June 14th, directed at French speaking companies and organised by project partner the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance. The partner will also organise a follow up session on June 20th for Dutch speaking SMEs. The project welcomes any organisation who would benefit from the training and live demonstration of the CDCC. If you or your company is interested in attending, information can be found here.