The Green Grid's next target: Data center e-waste

The Green Grid's next target: Data center e-waste

E-waste image by David Maska via Shutterstock.

During the past five years, most data center managers have become increasingly attuned to energy efficiency, water consumption and carbon emissions metrics. Often, the electronic waste (e-waste) disposal dilemma has taken a backseat.

A data center trade association is trying to change that, especially as the industry overhauls and replaces hundreds of servers, storage and networking gear to accommodate massive consolidation and virtualization projects and prepare for the age of cloud computing.

"With the build-out of cloud computing, the inventory of physical IT assets will shift from the consumer to the data center," said Ezra Benjamin, principal program manager, sustainability, with storage hardware and virtualization company EMC.

"While the number of consumer devices is increasing, they are also getting smaller in size. Meanwhile, data centers are being upgraded and expanded, potentially creating a large amount of future e-waste. Data center managers need a plan for what to do with their old systems. It's important that their plans take into account the social, environmental, security and reputational risks associated with old equipment."

Enter the Green Grid, the trade association taking steps to address that oversight through Solving the e-waste Problem (StEP), a new alliance with a global consortium hosted by the United Nations University.

Together, the organizations are launching a series of educational projects. What's more, they are refining a new framework called the Electronics Disposal Efficiency metric intended to help data center managers measure their progress against industry best practices. The methodology parallels other measures developed for efficiency, including Power Usage Effectiveness, Water Usage Effectiveness and Carbon Usage Effectiveness.

Green Grid and StEP aren't endorsing any particular e-waste disposal or management approach. The two most recognized ones are the e-Stewards process originally developed by the Basel Action Network and the Responsible Recycling (R2) practices espoused by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rather, the emphasis will be on ensuring that e-waste considerations are embedded more deeply into existing business processes, said John Pflueger, IT efficiency expert for The Green Grid and principal environmental strategist for Dell.

"We are deliberately not trying to pick winners," he said.

E-waste image by David Maska via Shutterstock.

In the coming months, several Green Grid members will pilot the EDE methodology in order to understand obstacles and pitfalls and to determine what considerations need to be added. At the same time, the association is working with StEP on education content that raises awareness of e-waste among data center operators. The organization hasn't set a specific length of time for the pilot project.

"We are still in the 'finding' process, but the e-waste challenge is getting on political agendas," said Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of the StEP initiative. "Unfortunately, we don't have a solution in our drawers yet."

Some high-tech manufacturers have established programs on their own to help their customers grapple with e-waste concerns when products are nearing their end of life or when they are coming off lease.

EMC, for example, offers product take-back options to all of its customers, Benjamin said. (It is one of the Green Grid companies that helped contribute ideas to EDE.)

Last year, EMC collected an estimated 10,041 metric tons of old storage hardware. Whatever it couldn't remanufacture and reuse, it entrusted to its IT asset disposal (ITAD) partners. Those partners will be required to achieve either e-Stewards or R2 certification, which govern best practices for disposing of e-waste and have strict environmental provisions, by the end of 2013.

"In addition, EMC hires a third party to audit our ITAD suppliers on an annual basis," Benjamin said in an email. "These audits help ensure that ITAD suppliers have proper EHS practices, business practices and downstream capabilities in place."