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Unearthing the plan to take the EU’s data centre economy full circle

Thu 7 Mar 2019 | Deborah Andrews

Deborah Andrews, lead partner of CEDaCI and associate professor of design at LSBU, unpacks the project aiming to develop a robust, secure and economically viable supply chain for data centre equipment

The origins of the circular economy can be traced back to the Swiss architect and economist Walter Stahel, who coined the term “cradle to cradle” as an alternative to the established product paradigm of cradle to grave.

The concept has since developed to incorporate a service economy (such as those offered by the likes of car-sharing service Zip Car), extending products’ life through reuse remanufacture and repair as well as recycling at end-of-life.

Thanks in part to advocacy from yachtswoman Ellen McArthur who was horrified by the plastic and other waste that she witnessed on her voyage around the world, the circular economy is now mainstream and being put forward as a serious alternative to the Linear ‘take-make-use-and dispose’ model.

Squaring the circle

Enter the data centre. The bricks and mortar foundation to the digital world that demand uninterrupted customer service and whose growth continues unabated; whether it’s colocation facilities provided by Equinix or Flexential or the huge hyperscalers constructed by Facebook and Google. At present, just 10 percent of the critical raw materials (CRM) from the data centre sector are recycled and recovered.

Deborah Andrews, associate professor of design at London South Bank University’s (LSBU) School of Engineering is one of a number of experts calling for the application of circular economy principles to the data centre to mitigate this mounting pile of material.

Deborah has been involved in sustainability-related research and teaching for over 20 years, a period through which the concept of sustainable building design has shifted from “innovative” to “mainstream”, as the world belatedly wakes up to issues of resource demand, population growth and waste.

Deborah’s turn to the data centre occurred when, almost a decade ago, she was invited by colleagues to supervise a PhD about data centres.

“The focus was a lifecycle / environmental impact assessment of the buildings and IT equipment and focussed on embodied impacts rather than energy consumption and operational impacts. The subject was really interesting and innovative, and, until then, there was very little research in this area.”

While on sabbatical from LSBU she chose to concentrate on researching and developing a bespoke data centre circular economy project proposal. The project, labelled CEDaCI, was submitted to the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in October 2017.

“I became increasingly aware of the conflict between the growing sectoral waste and reliance on the service,” says Deborah.

“I realised that we had to do something to change the situation to ensure that the level of connectivity can increase so that we can all have uninterrupted access to data processing and storage for education, health, finance and looking at pictures and videos of kittens!”

“The project’s USP, its success and the future of the sector are dependent on the various actors coming together to develop a dedicated bespoke Circular Economy”

CEDaCI received full funding one year later and was approved in January to run for three years. Ahead of her talk at Data Centre World – the industry event that played a huge role in making the project a reality – Techerati asked Deborah to expand on the project’s history and core aims.


So, what does a circular economy for the data centre industry look like?

“The main objectives of CEDaCI are to develop a robust, secure and economically viable supply chain for materials for data centre equipment. This will ensure that the service will remain uninterrupted,” Deborah says.

The main focus is the reclamation of critical raw materials, those materials – the batteries, cables, hard drives and servers – that the data centre cannot function without. Deborah and the CEDaCI team will endeavour to feed these essential ingredients back into a closed loop into the manufacture of new equipment.

“This will reduce the export of WEEE (waste electronic and electrical equipment) to places where it is either recycled in hazardous conditions or stockpiled, thereby reducing negative environmental and social impacts,” says Deborah.

“The development of an extensive reprocessing infrastructure in Europe will also improve and maintain quality control of recycled materials.”

The complex project is structured across six work packages: management, communications, long term effects, situational analysis, co-creation workshops and pilots. Presently, Deborah and the team are working on a comprehensive situational analysis of the sector in North West Europe.

They will then facilitate interdisciplinary cross-sectoral co-creation workshops and three pilots to develop and improve the design of circular economy-ready equipment, the reuse/remanufacture of it and the ancillary recycling processes and strategies.

If all goes to plan data centre operators will have the knowledge to optimise end-of-life equipment strategies themselves, helped in part by a “decision making tool” in the works and bespoke training sessions.

Centre’s attention

Naturally, a project that requires collaboration across wide geographical boundaries and that envelops a multitude of stakeholders, at scale, is not signed, sealed, and funded overnight.

Deborah tells me that building the network and writing the application took over half a year of visits to the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium, and large industry events such as Data Centre World. Deborah admits she was impressed by the friendliness and general willingness to help among the people she met.

“If someone was unable to help personally, they invariably introduced me to colleagues who could help!”

The team established is truly interdisciplinary and consists of a complex network of experts and partners: DC operators and consultants, equipment designers and manufacturers, reuse and remanufacturers, metals recycling and reclamation companies, as well as experts in consumer and end-user behaviour and policy developers and influencers.

Once the network was developed, the team applied to the ERDF Interreg programme with LSBU as project leaders. She says the main hurdles were related to the application itself; navigating the process and understanding EU-legalese. After innumerable EU visits and many more sleepless nights the two-year-plus process got the all clear in January 2019.

Next steps

The project’s success mandates ongoing participation across the data centre sector so that its wealth of knowledge and experience can be leveraged. At the micro-level circular economies are defined by an industry’s particular qualities and needs.

“The project’s USP, its success and the future of the sector are dependent on the various actors coming together to develop a dedicated bespoke Circular Economy,” Deborah explains. “But at the moment members of the various sub-sectors do not converse.”

“We want to reach out to as many businesses as possible and invite them to participate in the project network to contribute to the development of and access the various project outputs.”

“If we act now, we can mitigate and avoid future problems for the sector, and also take advantage of associated business opportunities.”

Join me at Data Centre World

Learn more about CEDaCI and meet Deborah at Data Centre World, March 12-13, ExCeL London. Data Centre World is the world’s largest data centre event.

Experts featured:

Deborah Andrews

Associate Professor, Design


circular economy recycle reuse sustainability
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