E-waste is the next green challenge for the IT industry

26 May 2011

Improving the energy efficiency of IT equipment is still the overwhelming focus of the green IT community, with little attention given to the next big challenge – how to safely manage the global production and disposal of billions of personal computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices.

That is according to David Moschella, research director for CSC’s Leading Edge Forum, the global research and advisory programme that explores new thinking to address the challenges at the intersection of business, IT and management.

“When it comes to environmental sustainability, the IT industry’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness,” says Moschella. “The flip side of our industry’s relentless technological progress is rapid product obsolescence and ever-rising piles of electronic waste (e-waste).”

He argues that the IT industry appears on track to be energy-neutral in terms of its net energy consumption and savings.

“Most estimates suggest that all of the world’s data centres, PCs and networks consume between 1.5pc and 3pc of the world’s energy.

“While precise measurements are always difficult, does anyone seriously doubt that the IT-enabled energy savings stemming from e-commerce, telecommuting, digital newspapers, teleconferencing, virtual offices, smart buildings, smart products, etc, aren’t enough to offset this?”

Moschella points to the iPhone, which has eliminated much of the need for cameras, address books, reference books, newspapers, maps, CD players, watches, radios, credit cards and even PCs.

“Given the implicit energy savings, the electricity used by the actual device is a second order sustainability issue at most,” says Moschella.

However, he says the downside of this technological progress is the ever-growing e-waste issue.

“In recent years, energy savings have been the overwhelming focus of the green IT community. This needs to be rebalanced to give the e-waste problem the attention it deserves.”

Why so little attention to e-waste?

Moschella and his team believe they have identified the main reasons why the problem of e-waste has received only “a tiny fraction” of the attention given to IT energy consumption. These include: The risks of climate change have made energy use and related emissions the core of the environmental movement, crowding out other concerns.

In developed economies, the cost of extracting toxic substances from retired electronic products substantially exceeds the resulting value, making it an unattractive business that’s usually moved offshore. Governments have been reluctant to seriously regulate the prosperous and influential IT industry, especially in the US and Asia.

Keeping the market’s emphasis on reducing energy consumption is appealing to manufacturers as it helps convince customers to buy new equipment. Emphasising the effects of obsolescence and e-waste would have the opposite effect.

The public remains largely uninformed and apathetic, especially outside of Europe.

Buying more energy-efficient computers is relatively easy. But there is no simple way to build toxin-free computers.

Moschella doesn’t pretend to have a magic bullet solution to the e-waste challenge, but argues that the debate must be ignited.

“The evidence suggests that IT’s net contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is negligible, probably even ameliorative, but the dangers of e-waste disposal are real and accumulating. Like many complex entities, the IT community often finds it hard to pursue two priorities at the same time. If we have to choose one, managing e-waste is now the more pressing sustainable IT concern.”

Photo: David Moschella of CSC’s Leading Edge Forum

Green IT will be a key theme of the Business & Leadership Green Economy Briefing on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 at the Four Seasons Hotel, Dublin. You can still book online or by contacting Niamh Carwood.

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human