Circular Economy for the Data Centre Industry (CEDaCI)
The data centre industry has grown rapidly and generates a large volume of eWaste / WEEE. The current infrastructure for dealing with this waste is underdeveloped and consequently, there is a real and urgent need to address this now. CEDaCI is building a Circular Economy for the Data Centre Industry by bringing together stakeholders from all equipment life cycle stages to turn this waste into a useful resource and support the ongoing rapid growth of the industry.
LSBU academics in the School of Engineering have been collaborating with the data centre industry for over 20 years.
Background and context
Since the development of the World Wide Web in the late 1980s, digital communication has proved incredibly popular and more than 5.18 billion people, or 64.6% of the global population (as of April 2023), are now ‘connected’ via mobile phones, laptop, desk and other computers; consequently, approximately 8.6 million data centres have been set up around the world to handle the streams of digital information. These data centres may be cupboard-sized or, like the largest in the world, equivalent in area to 93 football pitches. Regardless of size they all house digital data processing, networking and storage equipment to ensure uninterrupted connectivity. At present in Europe data centres cover about 10 million m2 of floor area, 70% of which is concentrated in North West Europe (NWE), especially in the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands. The ongoing development of the Internet of Things (IoT) and other services is creating concurrent growth in data exchange and storage and it is predicted that this will be met with a 300% increase in data centres in Europe by 2025 and a 500% global increase in data centres by 2030.
The main priority of the data centre industry is uninterrupted operation and service to customers and consequently the sector has concentrated on technology and product development, manufacture and operation. At present DC equipment life is only 1-5 years and consideration of what happens to the equipment when it reaches end-of-life has been limited; as a result data centres contribute to the annual global production of 11.8 Mt/year of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), which is the one of the fastest growing waste streams. Although some equipment remains in Europe a significant volume is exported; it may be recycled, stockpiled and/or sent to landfill and consequently millions of tonnes of resources are wasted and/or become inaccessible. WEEE contains a number of Critical Raw Materials (CRM) which are economically valuable and technically essential to data centre operation; however, their supply is vulnerable to disruption.
The CEDaCI project is building a circular economy for the data centre industry to increase reclamation and reuse of critical raw materials in the sector, extend product life through equipment reuse and remanufacture, reduce use of virgin materials, waste and environmental impact arising from the growth in redundant equipment and develop a secure and economically viable CRM supply chain for the sector. At present, only 10% of critical raw materials from the sector are recycled and recovered but this will increase to 19% and 24% 5 and 10 years after the project ends; reuse of equipment will also increase to 65% and 75% respectively and at end-of-life overall product ‘waste’ will be reduced to 35% and 25%.
Extended product life through second use and refurbishment
Increase dematerialisation through improved EcoDesign Guidelines
Increase WEEE collection, processing and recycling in the EU and adherence to EU regulations
Create jobs in North West Europe
Decrease illegal export of sectoral WEEE
Limit stockpiling of resources overseas
Ensure the control of NWE DCI materials’ supply chains and manufacture.
Methodology and output
The aims and objectives of the project are being achieved through a whole-life approach to the problem: the project brings together stakeholders from across the sector. They include designers, manufacturers, operators, refurbishers and recyclers. Collaborating in a knowledge-sharing network, they engage on a co-creation platform and thee integrated pilots for three life-cycle stages (design, life extension and end-of-life). The project output includes: two products, processes or technologies developed and tested in real life conditions; EcoDesign/Design for circular economy guidelines (to accelerate the manufacture of circular economy-fit products); a Decision Making Tool (DMT) for all data centre sub-sectors to optimise circular economy business models; and improved refurbishment, recycling and reclamation strategies for WEEE and critical raw materials. These will feed into bespoke technical assistance (DMT training sessions) for 50 data centre industry businesses; advice and guidelines for policy-makers and policy-influencers and makers; and a physical and virtual demonstrator that explains the circular economy context, processes and benefits. A long-term strategy with a ten-year maintenance plan will ensure the project’s impact and long-term legacy.
The multi-disciplinary CEDaCI network brings together actors and experts from all life-cycle stages and sub-sectors directly and indirectly associated with the data centre industry. Network membership helps the organisations to make the best choices to develop and grow their business sustainability, through access to example case studies, business models, and a Decision-Making Tool. The organisations can also connect to the CEDaCI project partners and other network members, and identify business opportunities.
Lead Partner at LSBU: Professor Deborah Andrews, School of Engineering.