Spotlight on IT: Small footprints a challenge for big IT

Singaporean Adam Reutens-Tan has spent much of this year trying to cultivate the public’s e-waste recycling habits. As corporate social responsibility manager for local telecommunications and cable provider StarHub, he has been managing a new e-waste collection programme that is the first of its kind here.

Residents of the small, urban nation of five million – known for their love of shopping and keeping up with the latest gadgets – have few options for disposing of unwanted smartphones and computers in an eco-friendly way.

“We recognized this void in Singapore’s recycling landscape and decided to fill it,” Mr Reutens-Tan told Eco-Business in a recent interview.

The 35-year-old CSR executive has seen mixed results since StarHub launched the project during Earth Hour in April, but he said he is taking heart from the high volume of e-waste collected at the firm’s outlet at Plaza Singapura on Singapore’s Orchard Road.

StarHub’s five collection centres have so far collected about 400 kilogrammes of e-waste, which is processed by local recycling firm TES-AMM.

He is convinced that the e-waste recycling habits of Singaporeans will pick up over time, but only if the industry makes the process convenient: “All the public education and awareness will count for nought if the effort to recycle the e-waste is too great,” he said.

According to United Nations statistics, e-waste from electronic gadgets accounted for about eight per cent of the average country’s municipal wastein 2005, and this number has been growing rapidly.

The problem of e-waste – which releases hazardous materials into the environment if handled improperly - is big enough that the information technology (IT) industry has put it at the top of its sustainability agenda alongside greenhouse gas emissions. The industry contributes about two per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Hong Kong-based Robert Zorn, manager of corporate development in Greater China for independent auditor TÜV Rheinland, notes that reclaiming e-wasteis akey challenge for theIT industry in its efforts to reduce its overall environmental impacts.

This year, the Germany-headquarteredfirm introduced a voluntary certification programme that audits consumer products on environmental impacts in addition to the safety and technical testing that forms the core of its business.

The programme rates products on hazardous chemicals, energy efficiency, carbon emissions and the recyclability and recycled content of the materials used. Potential buyers can tell from a single label on the packageifa product is safe, green and meets all technical requirements.

IT and electronics manufacturers such as Lenovo, Samsung and LG have jumped on board. Lenovo was awarded the first certification for display monitors this monthand others are in progress.

Taipei-based Bodo Kretzschmar, who is Mr Zorn’s colleague and general manager of services for display products, told Eco-Businessthat almost all IT manufacturers are now trying to market their productsasgreen because it gives them a competitive advantage.

“The industry definitely sees that we cannot continue as we have in the past. Change must come and will come; the question is how fast,” he added.

Mr Kretzschmarsees rapid progress from IT manufacturers in the areas of energy efficiency andrecycling,which includes greater use of recycled materials and making products easier to break down and reuse.

He noted that improved consumer habits, such as turning off computers when they are not needed, are helping lower the overall energy consumption from IT.

Consumers can also play a role in pushing the industry to be more sustainable, he said, as ultimately, it is consumers that drive demand for eco-friendly products.

“Green labels won’t speed up the industry’s progress – only consumer demand can do that. The certification only provides an option to distinguish between green and greenwash statements,” henoted, referring to misleading or false eco-friendly claims.

Cost is a keybarrier to sustainability for both manufacturers and consumers.

For example, Mr Zorn notes that consumers currently have to be willing to pay more for recycled products because of the extra costs entailed. Those costs involve not only creating systems for recovering and reusing the materials, but also the extensive research and development needed to use recycled materials without impacting the safety and quality of the products.

He maintained that to create an effective cycle for recovering and reusing resources in IT manufacturing, retail prices for eco-friendly products would have to match those of other products because consumers are extremely price-conscious.

Mr Kretzschmar is more optimistic. He said he is confident that consumer demand for sustainable products would pick up as awareness grows. He added that the industry’s recycling progress was getting a boost from governmentregulations concerning e-waste recycling and from rising oil prices. Historically, manufacturers have had to pay more for recycled materials than for new materials, but higher oil prices mean that costs of new petroleum-based materials are rising too.

Global IT firm Fujitsu’s head of sustainability, Alison Rowe,feels thatgovernments should take more responsibility for driving demand for sustainability from the IT sector.

Most global IT manufacturers have been pushing their suppliers to meet increasingly higherstandards for environmental and CSR performance, and governments should do the same when purchasing IT products and services, she noted.

“The sheer power and size would make a massive difference if all the governments in the world set up procurement guidelines for green IT,” said the Melbourne-based consultant, who added that Canada and the United Kingdom have taken the lead in this area.

The industry is ready to respond to such government driven demand, and leading companies are working on reducing environmental impacts over the entire life cycle of their products, she added.

For example, Fujitsu has removed toxic lead from its equipment and is currently researching the use of modular parts that can be easily removed when a product needs to be recycled, upgraded or repaired.

To reclaim old products once consumers no longer want them, many IT firms are implementing take-back schemes in which customers can return products to the manufacturer by trading them in or dropping them off at collection points.

E-waste schemes such as these are proving much easier to do in the business sector than in the retail sector,noted Ms Rose, because businesses tend to use IT service providers that include IT recycling and disposal as part of their contracts.

The industry is also helping businesses green their IT through developing software that saves energy by automatically shutting down equipment when not in use, or by providing regular updates on the amount of energy consumed.

Despite rapid progress on the energy efficiency of IT equipment, the industry still faces significant challenges when it comes to energy consumption and its corresponding greenhouse gas emissions.

Ms Rowe estimated that the industry’s emissions, which are roughly equal to those of the globalairline industry, will grow to six per cent by 2020 - primarily due to the amount of ‘big data’. Big data refers to the large volume of computer processes and information capture taking place on private servers and in data centres around the world.

People now expect access to up-to-date information at all times, she explained, and this has caused a massive explosion in applicationswhich transmit data constantly and add to a growing global digital footprint.

The industry will have to find more efficient ways of processing and storing all that information, she said. “We have some fantastic opportunities to reduce emissions,” she said, referring mainly to software and data centre improvements.

Asia Pacific’s data centre managers, for example, are making progress on reducing their carbon emissions, even if their primary motivation is to lower electricity costs.

Singapore-based vice president at global energy services firm Schneider Electric, Khoo Teng Seen, told Eco-Business that three things keep chief information officers awake at night: data security, data centre costs and the ability of their system to grow with their needs.

Lower energy demands are crucial because of high energy costs in many of the region’s largest data centre markets such as Singapore and Australia, and also because unstable electricity supplies in some areas threaten data security, he added.

The electricity needed to run data centres - already the largest operating cost for most facilities - has been increasing because current higher efficiency servers consume 5 to 10 times more energy than conventional servers. The newer servers use much more of their capacity at any given time and generate more heat.

Although many data centres are powered by highly polluting coal-based fuel sources, several global IT firms – including Google, Apple and Microsoft - are building or trialling new data centres that use renewable energies such as solar, wind and biogas from waste, or are located in regions that provide natural cooling.

Through better management, even existing data centres can reduce their energy costs and emissions by about a third, noted Mr Khoo. To reduce electricity costs, data centre managers have focused on increasing the efficiency of their buildings, whose cooling and lighting systems use about 54 per cent of the total power consumed.

They do this by using energy management systems that sense precisely when and where cooling is needed. And rather than cooling large rooms with many racks of computer processors, data centres can enclose servers in smaller spaces that are easier to cool and can be expanded when clients need more capacity.

The benefits of energy saving measures such as these will become increasingly important as the demand for data centres grows, said Mr Khoo, citing a study from independent research firm Frost & Sullivan that found the vast majority of data centres in Asia Pacific are nearing 90 per cent capacity. The same study revealed that the region’s market for data centre services was growing at a rate of nearly 13 per cent per year.

With the explosion in demand for data centres and other IT services and products, the industry’spledges to address environmental challenges take on added importance.

As Fujitsu’s Ms Rowe said, “As an industry, we absolutely have to do what we can to reduce our impacts on the environment.”

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