Circular Economy for the Data Centre Industry
Background and context
Since the development of the world wide web in the late 1980s digital communication has proved incredibly popular and more than 4.2 billion (55% of global population) 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 (ICT) equipment to ensure uninterrupted connectivity. At present in Europe data centres cover about 10 million m2 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 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 (DC) industry is 100% 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 WEEE (Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment), 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.