The fundamental problem of IT and Data center e-waste

The global e-waste problem is escalating, by 2017, world volumes of end-of-life e-products is expected to be 33% higher than 2012 according to a new study by the EERecyclingSolving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative.

Based on current trends E-waste will grow from 48.9 million metric tons in 2013 to 65.4 million tons in 2017.

StEP Initiative has created an interactive map. This map has details on each country’s e-waste numbers and regional or federal rules about how to dispose of the waste.

It shows that in 2012 China and the United States topped the world’s totals in market volume of EEE and e-waste. China put the highest volume of EEE on the market in 2012 – 11.1 million tons, followed by the US at 10 million tons.

However, an e-waste per capita gives a different view on e-waste production. Here the US shows an average 29.8 kg a person. Where as China’s shows a per capita figure of 5.4 kg.

A lot of the electronic devices are IT and Telecommunications Equipment and are used by corporate consumers. So some way or another these corporate consumers are taking part in this explosive growth of e-waste.

We all know that e-waste is serious business and if not proper handled it can cause severe environmental damage and harm to human health. (see When your IT equipment dies, where does it go? )

And there is also another not so well known side of the e-waste coin. E-waste is also about wasting rare earth metals. Metals which are essential for IT equipment and are very costly to produce. (see  Rare earths, E-waste and Green IT)

So there are some moral, economical and financial incentives to stop this explosive growth of e-waste.

As stated in the Green Grid (TGG) white paper the global community is in need of a user-based metric to quantify how well a corporate consumer of IT equipment responsibly manages it once it has been used and is no longer useful to the corporate consumer.

The idea is that an organization must manage all of its material streams. When an object is obsolete  (“end of current use” (EOCU) or “end of life” (EOL)) there are three possible materials streams: reuse, recycling and waste (were waste represents material that is sent to final disposal (e.g., landfilling or incineration as treatment).

Therefore they introduced the Electronics Disposal Efficiency (EDE) Metric

EDE = Total weight of decommissioned IT equipment by known responsible entities /

            Total weight of decommissioned IT equipment

Where the reuse, recycle and waste material streams can be administrated separately.

Using this metric is a good start for creating awareness of the e-waste issue in a corporate environment but there is a fundamental problem.

E-waste is a symptom of an industrial production system inherited from the steam-driven days of the first industrial evolution 18th century. A linear, ‘Take-Make-Waste’ process where “materials are extracted from the earth’s crust, transported to manufacturing sites, used to produce products (all materials not part of end product are discarded as waste), than products are transported to users and finally, at the end-of-life, discarded as waste”.

The implicit assumption of this production system is that we have infinite resources. Now in the 21st century we should be know better, fossil fuels are limited, rare earth elements in electronic components are scarce, water is scarce. So by definition this classical way of producing is unsustainable.

In a cradle to cradle production system, all materials used in industrial or commercial processes fall into one of two categories: technical or biological nutrients. Technical nutrients are strictly limited to non-toxic, non-harmful synthetic materials that have no negative effects on the natural environment; they can be used in continuous cycles as the same product without losing their integrity or quality. In this way these materials can be used over and over.


A fundamental transition is needed. Instead of buying, consuming and wasting products one should try to buy services where products are used and recycled. In this circular economy model manufacturers retain the ownership of their products and, act as service providers—selling the use of products, not their one-way consumption as in the current industrial model of linear economy. This should be the fundamental solution to e-waste.

An utopian dream? Multinationals like Philips and InterfaceFLOR are already working with this concept by selling light-as-a-service or carpet-as-a-service and creating closed production loops.

(see Data Centers and Mount Sustainability and The as-a-Service Datacenter, a new industrial model)

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