People often talk about the circular economy as if it is some kind of charitable gesture you can make for the good of the planet. Recycling your servers sounds like a civic duty, much the same as recycling your bottles and cans.
But it's actually much more than that. There are direct benefits to your business from ensuring your hardware is fully and effectively used and reused. And the benefits to the planet are more than skin deep, too.
"A lot of people think that their circular economy is just about recycling, but it's not. It's about much more," Professor Deborah Andrews told the London State of Open Conference this week.
According to Professor Andrews, the circular economy is not just a nice thing to do. It's potentially the biggest step toward heading off one of the most crucial problems in the tech industry. Right now there are huge supply chain issues, where components and raw materials are in short supply. Other factors will make that worse, including worsening trade with China, the war in Ukraine, and impending shortages in the supply of PFAS chemicals which are vital to the production of electronics.
Extending the life of products, and making sure they are reused and not simply thrown away, can help reduce demand, which will ease the pressure on supply chains. And that should make tech firms' lives easier.
It will also make some other people's lives safer, as some essential materials are mined in hostile conditions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, cobalt is mined by children and then used in lithium-ion batteries, for phones, cars, and other products. "There's no point in designing the most environmentally friendly product if it's made by slave labor," says Prof Andrews.
Professor Andrews heads up the CEDaCI (Circular Economy for the Data Center Industry) project which aims to promote hardware design for reusability. She's an authority on sustainability and the circular economy, and her main point is that products should be designed for circularity from the start. That's a mission built into her job title: she's the newly-appointed professor of design for sustainability & circularity at London South Bank University.
And she is not impressed by how well we are doing at this: "What we need to do is ensure that we keep materials in use for as long as it's technically and economically feasible," she told SOOCON. "At the moment, approximately 50 million tons of e-waste is generated globally per year. That is equivalent to about six kilos per person. And if we carry on working the way that we're working, by 2050 we will generate 120 million tonnes of e-waste a year."
This e-waste contains large amounts of the 20 critical raw materials identified by the EU, and at the moment almost none of that is recovered. "At end of life, at the moment, less than 20 percent of electrical and electronic equipment is formally collected and recycled," she says. "There's an awful lot of stuff where we just don't know what happens to it. Some is sold on informal secondary markets, we know a lot of it is shredded, and a lot ends up in holes in the ground. We can't keep behaving like this."
Even when equipment is recycled, efforts to recover raw materials only extend to those which are easiest to recover and sell, like copper and gold. Failing to recover the rarer elements perpetuates a linear "take-make-use-dispose" economy. This ensures that the problems continue, and get worse as the available sources or raw materials get harder to exploit.
Why is the tech industry doing so badly? One reason may be to do with our current fixation on reducing carbon. It's vital to reduce carbon emissions to halt global warming, but it's not enough. "We must consider the whole lifecycle, not just carbon. Carbon is a useful metric, but it can be a bit misleading. If you're just looking at carbon and carbon equivalents, you're failing to consider other impacts that are equally important. such as radiation and human toxicity."
It's entirely possible to design products which will have a longer working life, which can easily be upgraded or passed to a second user. When they are eventually retired, as little as possible should be discarded, and they should readily yield up their raw materials for reuse.
The other big reason for the tech industry's slow progress is the business model. Circular economy products can be "bad" products when seen by business-as-usual metrics. They reduce consumption and enable people to buy less.
Prof Andrews' CEDaCI project has created designs for a circular server, which could be manufactured and used in data centers. At this point, it's not clear how the ideas of this design can be transferred into actual use, but it's clear that we need this kind of thinking - not just to feel good about ourselves, but to solve the nightmare of broken supply chains.
"We're going to go on having supply chain problems until we shift from a linear economy to a more circular economy," says Professor Andrews.