Many data centers have set environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals in an effort to reduce their carbon footprints. Gartner predicts that 75 percent of organizations will implement sustainability programs for their data centers by 2027, up from less than five percent in 2022.

Often, these initiatives focus on reducing energy consumption, and that’s certainly an important objective. However, data center eWaste should also be addressed.

We usually associate eWaste with consumer devices – and they are certainly a significant source. However, data centers also generate a large volume of eWaste in the form of discarded IT equipment, power distribution units, and many other components.

Often, equipment is disposed of because it is outdated due to the rapid pace of change in the IT industry. However, less than 20 percent of electronic equipment is properly recycled, according to some estimates. The UN projects that the volume of global eWaste will reach 74.7 metric tons by 2030.

To address this challenge and help meet their sustainability objectives, data centers should develop a full-lifecycle strategy for reducing eWaste.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

The US has more than 5,000 data centers as of November 2023, more than 10 times the number in Germany, the second largest market. However, there are no federal laws governing the lifecycle management of electronic equipment, and only about half of US states regulate eWaste.

Generally, it’s up to individual data centers to implement their own eWaste management strategies. Luckily, these programs can be cost-effective and efficient if implemented properly. It starts with a full-lifecycle approach to data center management that follows core sustainability principles. There are several waste management hierarchy models but all include four key tenets:

  • Reduce the amount of waste produced
  • Reuse products as long as possible
  • Recycle by converting waste into other products
  • Dispose of waste as a last resort

These tenets should be considered from the time hardware is deployed until it reaches the end of its useful life.

Putting it into practice

The first step for data centers is to reduce the amount of equipment they purchase. One strategy is to perform regular maintenance and take other measures to extend the equipment lifecycle. Consolidation strategies help reduce the amount of equipment that must be refreshed while reducing power consumption.

Equipment reuse involves repurposing older hardware for use cases that don’t require the highest levels of performance and availability. For example, outdated servers can be used as backups or for less-demanding workloads.

Just 28 percent of companies reuse their IT equipment in-house, according to a 2021 study by SuperMicro. However, the concept is becoming more popular with hyperscale data centers and large service providers. Because hyperscalers use customized equipment, reusability can be incorporated into the design.

But even if equipment cannot be used internally, it may be of value to someone else. Data centers should incorporate resale programs into their full-lifecycle management strategies. In addition to delaying disposal, resale enables data centers to recapture the equipment’s residual value.

The full lifecycle

Ultimately, equipment will reach the end of its useful life and should be recycled to the greatest possible extent. Recycling not only keeps equipment out of landfills but also captures materials that can be used in manufacturing other products.

Data center operators should work with an e-cycling partner that has a “zero landfill” policy. The e-cycling provider should not ship waste overseas, which often leads to dumping and high levels of environmental contamination.

It all starts with a full-lifecycle approach to data center management. Ideally, a data center will be built sustainably from the start, in cooperation with partners that offer sustainable products, from construction materials all the way to high-tech equipment.

Sustainability: An achievable data center challenge

Sustainability has become a larger focus this year, and it will only grow going into 2024 and beyond. And as technological innovations like AI continue to skyrocket, it’s possible that more and more data center equipment will need to be upgraded sooner than expected.

However, the challenge isn’t impossible – and a partner can help. With our extensive experience in the design, buildout, maintenance and management of data center infrastructure, as well as partnerships with industry leaders that offer sustainable products, Wesco is here to help assess data centers’ environments and develop strategies for meeting ESG objectives.

By focusing on sustainable products and waste reduction from the very start, as well as working with the right partners, data centers have the opportunity to meet their sustainability goals now and into the future.