Resourcing the ICT industry

By Elizabeth Rudd, Director, FutureNous
Tuesday, 30 July, 2013

Resourcing the ICT industry

The ICT industry has three areas of resource usage which currently provide opportunities for the industry to lessen its environmental impact: overall energy usage, electronic waste and rare earth metals. How these areas are managed impacts the industry’s future.

The amount of energy used to power servers, PCs, and data centres has grown as the use of computers and storage of data has increased exponentially. Cloud computing, with centralised servers and data storage utilised by many customers, may improve the industry’s energy profile.

A recent study funded by Google found organisations can reduce energy consumption of ICT up to 87% by moving email, customer relationship management software and productivity software (spreadsheets, word processing) to cloud computing environments.

Perhaps of greater concern to the industry’s future is the energy inefficiency of wireless networks. A study by Australia’s Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) estimates per annum growth of 78% for mobile data traffic and 95% growth in usage of mobile or wireless devices to access cloud computing or internet applications. While energy usage from an individual user is small, when all users are aggregated, energy consumption is high. CEET estimates data centres account for 9% of overall energy consumption, while wireless networking technology accounts for 90%.

The second area, e-waste, is concerning due to the level of toxic materials used in the manufacture of electronic devices. Low recycling rates mean most e-waste ends up in landfills where the toxins leach into groundwater or is incinerated with the toxins sent airborne. At 3-5% growth rates, e-waste is the fastest growing category of waste, with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimating the current volume at 40 million tonnes per annum with only 20% recycled. Currently, 80% of all recycling is sent to facilities in developing countries where it is processed without regard for individual and environmental safety creating additional problems.

Manufacturers could build goods to last longer or make them easier to upgrade and replace parts like batteries, lowering the high rate of obsolescence and the volume of e-waste. About 40% of e-waste is telecommunications and consumer electronics products (another 40% is large household appliances).

Rare earth minerals (REMs), the third area, are not necessarily rare but are often found in quantities where mining is not economically viable. Used in small quantities in many high-tech goods including computers, smartphones and screens, the collection of 17 elements is vitally important. Currently, China has a virtual monopoly on REMs, with many estimating China controls 90-97% of world supply.

Australia, the US and Japan have all identified deposits of REMs but it will be some time before these mines are operational. In the meantime, China has restricted exports leading the European Union, US and Japan to file a complaint against China with the World Trade Organisation. Unfortunately, little research has been undertaken to find alternatives to these materials. Recycling and reducing obsolescence could assist.

Other industries utilise technology to reduce their environmental impact; ICT has the opportunity to do the same.

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