Today’s reliance on technology to aid our lives and work means that it’s near impossible to imagine a life without it. Since 2001, the number of fixed broadband users in Australia has grown from about 100,000 to around 9.5 million in 2023, while mobile internet users locally has grown from 13.5 million in 2009 to a predicted 24.4 million in 2024.
Yet, there are immense physical implications to the digital technologies we rely on. Computers, servers, and other electronic devices require large amounts of natural resources and energy to manufacture and operate. With exponential growth in data processing anticipated in the coming years and the growing issue of e-waste, the environmental impact of digital technologies is expected to increase.
Despite the growing environmental concerns that digital technology brings, global connectivity and innovation have transformed nearly every industry today. However, greater consideration of how these technologies are applied and used efficiently is necessary to ensure the benefits outweigh the environmental impact.
When considering sustainable IT solutions, we’ve broken down the six steps of transformative actions that could help your organisation reach its goals. Whether it’s sustainability or business-led, one shouldn’t have to be sacrificed in favour of the other. We believe achieving both in tandem is the best output for modern businesses today:
1. Optimise energy efficiencies
Energy concerns were paramount for our customers this year, not only in response to rising energy costs but also as they worked toward reducing emissions. The juxtaposition of data centres in the context of sustainability is that they are business-critical for data access and operations but are responsible for significant power consumption and energy costs.
Through the work we do with our customers and partners, we are striving to make the transition to more sustainable and energy-efficient data centres with advanced cooling and thermals, power management tools and offering as-a-Service (aaS) solutions to “right size” data storage. Engineering advancements have helped Dell reduce the energy intensity of high-performance computing products by up to 83% since 2013, and we increased the energy efficiency of PowerEdge servers by 29% over the previous generation.
Innovations across modern storage solutions, including flash storage, data deduplication and compression, helps customers consolidate their hardware and save energy, reducing their physical footprint. This is becoming more critical to efficiently running an IT-heavy business. In Australia, the network cost of electricity rose 10% in July 2023, part of a trend of steady upward pressure on power prices, which ultimately flow on to end users, like data centres.
2. Environmentally friendly resources
The IT industry is heavily dependent on finite raw materials, including minerals like lithium or cobalt, which are associated with high energy and water consumption and environmental damage during extraction.
Alternatives to these raw materials are increasing in demand, as they make use of materials already in use, do not deplete additional natural resources, and emit fewer greenhouse gases in their production and during the product life cycle. For example, waste carbon fibre from the aerospace industry is used as a polycarbonate base in the production of certain laptops. Another alternative material is a bioplastic derived from tree waste during paper production, which is used as new component technology casings.
Innovating for new and more environmentally friendly materials will help drive more sustainable IT. And one of the most immediate initiatives is for the IT design process to operate as a closed loop model, which keeps products and materials in circulation as long as possible.
3. Driving circularity to reduce e-waste
According to the UN, a massive 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste is generated worldwide. Recycling rates are still low, with just over 17% of e-waste being recycled in Australia in the last few years. By improving and increasing the number of repair, recovery and reuse services available to consumers and business customers, we aim to retrieve more unused technology and keep products and materials in use as long as possible.
One way business can address the e-waste problem is through Dell’s Asset Recovery Services. This is designed to help securely and responsibly retire your old assets while protecting both your business and the planet. You can return any brand, data is wiped according to the NIST SP 800-88 r1 standard, and all recycling is fully documented for your sustainability records.
Additionally, Australia is expected to follow the EU in the adoption of the European Sustainability Reporting Standards. The ESRS require companies to report on their impacts on people and the external environment alongside the reporting of financial risks and opportunities impacted by environmental and social issues.
Sustainable alternatives won’t be available in every line of production, so it is also critical that recycling and reusing are carried out consistently. Recycled plastic and ocean-bound plastics can be incorporated into packaging and products. Discarded electronic items, in which valuable metals and minerals reside, are also important suppliers of raw materials. For example, aluminium can be extracted from old hard drive frames and reused in new ones.
Approaching IT with a more simplified product design results in fewer raw materials used, easier extraction of components and materials for reuse and recycling, and an evolution of business models, like as-a-service (aaS), to automate the recovery of retired IT. Each of these steps – however incremental – helps to reduce material emissions and waste.
4. Easy repair
Repairing equipment extends its usable life and is almost always more sustainable than buying new devices. For this to be successful, it is important that components can be easily replaced, manuals are easy to find and understand, and parts and warranties are readily available.
Repairing devices to extend their usable lives and reusing materials in this process are critical elements of the circular economy, and we are seeing repair rise in prominence as an adaptable solution for the IT industry. The impact of repair on the environment helps to slow down the use of resources and the flow of materials, which translates into reduced waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
Additionally, most repairs can be done locally, resulting in more local jobs generated in small and medium-sized enterprises, which is a societal benefit for local communities.
5. Extending IT life
Device longevity is increasing as we advance repairable and sustainable designs. However, it is common for users to readily replace their electronics when a more powerful model is available for a reduced cost or offers increased performance. Put simply, the longer a device is in use, the better it is for the environment. To ensure the longest use of each device, manufacturers must ensure that hardware can be upgraded for future requirements and that firmware and security updates are also available outside an existing service contract. At Dell, we have a concept laptop named Luna, which is able to be user upgraded, and we expect ideas from this project to inform future sustainable products.
6. Alternative reference models
As-a-service concepts make sense for companies that are always dependent on a high-performance IT infrastructure for their business requirements. In this operating model, turnkey IT services are provided on-demand and at transparent prices. Infrastructure oversizing – the practice of designing or acquiring infrastructure that exceeds the necessary capacity to meet current or anticipated demands – is avoided. This greatly reduces the opportunity for newly purchased equipment to sit idle outside of peak loads.
The juncture of technology and sustainability is at a critical point – and, as a responsible business, we must always consider the wider impact of technology on people and the planet. Sustainable IT solutions will continue to increase in importance when businesses make decisions about investments, technology utilisation and efficiencies, both in terms of productivity and environmental benefits.