Zero Waste: The Next Step for Data Center Sustainability

by | Apr 4, 2011

With the growing push for “zero waste” as a key corporate sustainability goal, data centers need to make sure they are doing their part. But a vital question remains – how do we measure progress towards that ambitious target with effective recycling programs?

There’s no question, it takes a lot of “stuff” to run a data center, from paper and toner cartridges to IT hardware and supporting equipment that is often refreshed as frequently as every nine months.  It’s important to minimize the amount of material that ends up in landfills – especially for toxic-laden electronics and batteries.

Fortunately, the data center industry has some recent experience with developing innovative metrics for improving environmental performance. Over the past few years, IT leaders debated the best way to measure energy inputs and outputs of a data center. Today, the industry has built consensus around a metric called “power usage effectiveness (PUE)” that is endorsed by key industry groups and government agencies.  The goal is to help IT management make informed decisions for ensuring efficiency measures that may cut energy costs and reduce C02 emissions.

But there remains a glaring gap in the discussion when it comes to measuring the material inputs and outputs of a data center. Getting our arms around this issue requires understanding the daily inflow of materials and outbound flow of goods and services compared with the subsequent material that is recycled, reclaimed, repurposed, or disposed of as solid waste.

Tracking is especially important as IT hardware is refreshed. E-waste, a major component of data center material flow, represents the fastest growing municipal waste flow in the U.S. and likely around the globe with recent reports indicating an 8.6 percent growth rate. In 2007 alone over 41 million computers were discarded in the U.S. – with only 18 percent being properly recycled. Too often, e-waste ends up exported to developing countries where it’s causing huge environmental problems. To understand more about how this works take a few minutes to watch The Story of Electronics. And we all need to keep in mind that the growth rate for e-waste from data centers is poised to accelerate as facilities shift to shorter refresh cycles in pursuit of improvements in energy efficiency and compute per­formance.

To take sustainability to a new level, data centers need an easily understood metric for assessing whether materials are handled in an environmentally responsible manner. A new position paper from Emerson Network Power outlines how recycling ratios provide an approach to consider.  Here are two examples of recycling ratios:

  • Material Reclamation Ratio (MRR), which looks at the amount of material that is recycled, reclaimed or repurposed compared to inbound material.  The result of the equation would be a ratio expressed as a percent­age – with 100 percent recognized as the goal.
  • Material Reuse Effectiveness (MRE), which basically flips the equation upside down to provide a metric similar to PUE where as overall efficiency improves the ratio moves closer to 1.

With either option, materials would be measured in mass (pounds or kilograms).  To support detailed reporting, recycling ratios can be tailored to look at specific subsets of material. For example, MRR(lifecycle)includes all building infrastructure, equipment and tenant improvements, along with all operational items. A different metric, MRR(e-waste) would include electronic equipment containing hazardous materials, such as computers and lead-acid batteries, that require special handling. Similar sub-metrics could look specifically at the building and operational issues.

The ratios are designed to measure progress over time. At the startup of a data center, for instance, the MRR(lifecycle) ratio may be quite low. While a lot of material is coming into the facility, the only outbound materials would be packaging and equipment that fails early in the launch. By the time you get to the first refresh, at around year 7, the ratio would increase as outdated equipment is sent for recycling while newer, more efficient equipment is brought in.  Around that time, data centers might be swapping out what I call the “big stuff” – lead-acid batteries, fire-suppression systems, and more – that presents special challenges and requirements for recycling.

To learn more about how it might work for your company, try out your own calculations or check out the scenarios in our position paper, which also offers more detail on the ratios.

While energy consumption remains a critical issue, IT leaders now must ensure they are addressing a wider range of environmental issues. As with any issue, measurement is the key to finding ways to improve. MRR and MRE provide clear, easily understood metrics to help data center management ensure materials are handled responsibly today while working towards our “zero waste” future.

Jack Pouchet is Director of Energy Initiatives for Emerson Network Power.

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