Waste not: how Silicon Valley is embracing green IT

Share

In 2017, the volume of e-waste created worldwide was predicted to be large enough to bury San Francisco to a depth of four meters – and that’s just the waste: Greenpeace claims 80 percent of the carbon pollution generated by electronics is created during the manufacturing process.

We’re using raw materials at a rate 1.7 times faster than the planet regenerates them, according to the Global Footprint Network. Throw in the consequences of use, distribution and (in the case of electronics) use of incredibly rare substances such as cobalt, and the consequences of wasteful manufacturing processes make for business models at once destructive and unsustainable. Let’s look at how some of the largest IT manufacturers are reducing their footprint and taking sustainability seriously.

Amazon

One of the world’s leading tablet manufacturers and biggest online retailers, Amazon aims to be 100 percent based on renewable energy in future. It recently made a huge investment in a large wind farm in Texas, U.S. and seeks to power all its fulfillment centers with solar energy. Amazon actively lobbies for stronger climate and environmental policy and urged the U.S. to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement. It offers interesting insights into its environmental credentials via its innovative Question Bank, where it claims to have reduced packaging waste by 16 percent, to be investing in electric and gas-powered delivery vehicles. Amazon also runs a recycling scheme in some territories.

Apple

Environmental campaigner Vice President Al Gore sits on Apple’s board, and the company leads the industry in attempting to reduce its environmental impact. One hundred percent of the energy it uses (including its retail and online services) comes from renewable sources while it has slashed CO2 emissions 54 percent since 2011. Apple is investing in solar energy farms worldwide and has begun working with third-party manufacturing partners to hook them up to renewable energy. Beyond manufacturing, Apple is investing in renewable packaging, a legitimate conflict mineral supply chain and is one of just two manufacturers (the other being Google) to have completely halted use of PVC and BFRs. Apple has also launched a billion-dollar green bond for environmental projects. In future, Apple will create a closed loop supply chain in which every component used in its devices is recycled while its products are becoming more power efficient.

Dell

Dell has adopted a set of Climate Policy Principles and continues to develop its own close loop manufacturing processes. The company’s products are seen as highly repairable according to Greenpeace, and it now publishes accurate data around the environmental consequences across its business, including third-party manufacturers. The company aims to source 50 percent of its electricity (currently, 24 percent) from renewable sources by 2020 and to reduce greenhouse gas generated in its business by 40 percent. It is making efforts to avoid conflict minerals and will increase use of recycled plastic by 2020.

Google

The Android developer and advertising giant also manufactures hardware with its Pixel, Chrome and Google Home devices. Google currently uses more renewable energy in terms of yield than any other corporation and hopes to treble this by 2025. Google has prohibited use of PVC, BFRs and other chemicals in its hardware and also works to avoid use of conflict minerals. It recently announced a new initiative with the United Nations in which it is lending its cloud computing and big data skills to build tools to track the impact of human activity on the planet.

HP

The world’s largest PC manufacturer, in 2016, 14 percent of HP’s power came from renewable energy. The company hopes to increase this to 40 percent by 2020 and 100 percent in the long term. HP is working to reduce its CO2 emissions (90 percent generated by manufacturing) by 25 percent by 2025 and is also working with suppliers to reduce the environmental impacts of its business. It has committed to increasing recycling efforts and to reducing use of conflict mineral and harmful components such as PVC and Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs). It provides one of the best take-back schemes in the U.S. and also has a policy to stop e-waste being exported to landfill in developing nations.

Microsoft

Microsoft VP Brad Smith recently took control of the company’s environmental policies. It has a good record of investment in biogas and fuel cell technologies and has been 100 percent carbon neutral since 2012. It is aiming to use 50 percent renewable energy by the end of 2018. While it is working to make data centers more energy efficient, it hasn’t yet set emissions targets for third-party manufacturing partners to reach. It also operates a recycling scheme and has a stated commitment to closed-loop manufacturing.

Orange Group

Orange Group is committed to cutting CO2 emissions by half for customer uses by 2020. To meet these targets, it has developed optimized reporting schedules and is upgrading its existing IT infrastructure with more energy-efficient equipment. It is also working closely with suppliers to reduce energy consumption and create closed loop product manufacturing for the third-party technology it uses. Server virtualization has helped Orange Group achieve a 70 percent reduction in data center energy consumption. It offers device take-back schemes in Europe and Africa.

Samsung

The world’s largest smartphone manufacturer, Samsung, is also a major producer of memory, displays and other electronic components used by multiple brands. The manufacturing giant used over 16,000 GWh of energy in 2016. While it doubled its use of renewable energy in 2016, just 1 percent of that total came from renewable sources, according to data published by Greenpeace. The company says it wants to reduce gas production by 70 percent by 2020. It is also working with the Conflict Free Smelter Initiative, though it does not publish its list of smelters for review. Samsung has eliminated PVC and BFRs across most of its products and offers a take-back scheme in 60 countries.

How can your enterprise be more environmentally-conscious?

Every enterprise can contribute to reducing energy waste and CO2 emissions. Simple things like turning off lights, investing in low-energy systems, using energy saving modes and unplugging electrical equipment when not in use may only have a minimal impact on a global scale, but if repeated across every office in every enterprise this becomes a significant contribution. Taking an electricity consumption audit across existing IT infrastructure and phased replacement of power-hungry products with more efficient products within annual spending cycles also makes long-term fuel efficiency sense. Recycling, use of recyclable packaging, using video collaboration systems rather than taking a plane, even adopting non-standard office hours and remote working can reduce the environmental impact of your business, while switching to renewable energy suppliers can have a direct impact on the energy you do use.

Find out how we are reducing our carbon footprint, limiting our impact on natural resources and how we are leveraging digital technologies for sustainability.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.