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Circularity: The data centre industry’s next frontier

Mark Bonner

Mark Bonner

Key Account Manager: Smart Lighting Solutions, Data Centres at Signify UKI
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Image credit: metamorworks / Shutterstock.com

Circularity can play a huge role in progressing any organisation’s journey towards a green future.

In the transition to a circular economy for any industry, the responsibilities boil down to designing out waste and pollution with the aim to extend the life of products and materials. Take a step further, not disposing any waste to landfill needs to be another objective.

It is important to realise that each element within the data centre has a role to play to get closer to the attaining energy and efficiency roles. Even the humble lighting installed in the premises.

The situation today

As a global society, we are incredibly and unsustainably wasteful. Today, we use 1.8 times the volume of resources that our planet can sustain, according to a report by WWF.  Another study from the World Economic Forum states that one refuse truck full of plastic is dumped into our oceans every minute. If we continue, it is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050 – a situation that is very serious and one that calls for immediate action. For any business, this is as much a matter of ethics as much of business and profitability.

Addressing climate change issues must be at the heart of every company’s strategy. Data centres should be no different given the amount of heat and carbon they are known to generate. As the world continues to overuse its precious, limited resources, increasingly scarce materials will become more expensive and challenging to source. The only way to overcome this is to create a model of manufacturing products with minimal waste that can be upgraded, serviced, reused, refurbished, or recycled. Continuing the linear model of ‘take-make-dispose’ indefinitely is impossible, as we will run out of finite resources. The ‘dispose’ part of the model is already pulling us in the direction of adverse climate change, polluted oceans, and ever-increasing landfill.

Unfortunately, often outdated perceptions or a reluctance to change the status quo have been the main barriers in adopting this approach by the industry over the past several years. However, we are now witnessing a paradigm shift in the industry. There is a heightened awareness that has been driven by the outcomes of COP26 UN climate change conference, competitive incentives, new regulations, and government coercion is encouraging the move to a circular economy. The fact that many local, regional, and state government bodies are now formally committed to the transition towards a circular economy is a key motivator for businesses competing to sell products or services to these entities. In the long run, it is the appetite for sustainability that will drive the demand for a circular economy.

At Signify, advocate recycling and re-using equipment/hardware as we feel this plays a critical role in taking any data centre even a step closer to its sustainability goals.

Circularity: a strategic business decision for the data centre industry

All data centres face the same challenge of how to design and operate their facilities to reduce impact without sacrificing performance or reliability. Data centres, like many other buildings, are of course built using materials such as concrete, steel, and iron, which have large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions embodied/associated within them. However, thoughtful design and innovations can minimise carbon intensive construction through using sustainable materials and processes. Data centres can also be designed to reuse waste products in operation or disseminate by-products such as waste heat to local communities.

According to IDC, there are two main approaches data centres can take to reduce their embedded impact.

  • Apply circular economy principles to waste heat and water recycling
  • Use sustainable building materials and processes to reduce embodied carbon.

The circular economy refers to a departure from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model. It is a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops. Like infrastructure including hardware, lighting installed in a data centre can preserve value and avoid waste. By using the circular economy model, data centres can minimise or prevent waste throughout the product lifecycle and recycle valuable materials

Utilising lighting

Moving beyond infrastructure and hardware, lights and luminaires also have a huge role to play in the sustainability and circularity in a data centre. A circular portfolio consists of four categories: serviceable luminaires, circular components, intelligent systems, and circular services. Serviceable luminaires are fixtures that can be upgraded, serviced, connectable, energy-efficient, reusable, and recyclable. Circular components are exchangeable and have recyclable parts, such as drivers, controls, and LED boards. Intelligent systems monitor serviceable luminaires and enable preventive maintenance. Finally, circular services aim to prolong lifetimes and provide customers with end-of-contract options

A great example of serviceable luminaires is 3D printed lighting. These luminaires are designed to be upgraded to meet the emerging needs of data centres. Whether these needs are performance improvements (higher efficacies in lumen per watt (lm/W) or better light quality), a diverse look and feel (different colour, texture or shaped housing), or a system upgrade, the modular concept facilitates these needs. Instead of replacing the whole luminaire, modules can be exchanged or added, thus preserving value and avoiding waste.

3D printing is a powerful tool that helps design and manufacture customised, recyclable products for consumer and business customers. 3D printed luminaires are printed with recyclable polycarbonate and are designed to be fully reused at the end of their lifetime, avoiding material waste. Another advantage is that 3D printed luminaires can be made to customers’ precise specifications, blending with existing fixtures or integrating highly customised design features, and delivered in a fraction of the traditional manufacturing lead time. A 3D printed luminaire has almost up to 47% lower carbon footprint for its materials, production, and logistics than its conventional equivalent. As a business, 3D printing allows manufacture on-demand and close to customers, reducing the carbon footprint of freight operations,

With circularity as an integral part of a sustainable future, a customers’ sustainability objectives can be supported with services. The Light-as-a-Service (LaaS) model combines lighting design, installation, and maintenance in a single contract. Built on the concept of circular lighting, this includes design and install, operation, and maintenance of the product to ensure there is no need to discard a luminaire. With the connected system these lights work on, maintenance is easy, which cuts down on waste, costs, downtime, and manpower. This model gives the customer the flexibility to return the equipment, reuse it, or recycle it. Making these luminaires is one of the best examples of how sustainability can open doors to innovation and free up investment resources in other avenues.

In conclusion

We are living in one of the most exciting eras, and our transformative actions will dictate the future of many generations to come. As we are now in the most crucial decade for climate action, we must leave behind the old idea of the linear economy, built on profligate waste and a dangerous disregard of its consequences. Instead, let’s further the action that takes us closer to a clean circular economy that allows people, infrastructure, and the planet we depend on to thrive into the future.

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