Electronic waste is a problem that is not going to go away, but will the latest moves in IT actually make it worse, asks Peter Judge
We weren’t at all surprised to find a significant level of ignorance in our poll about the fate of e-waste. We were surprised, however, by how many readers know their company is sending old IT kit to developing countries where it will actually harm people.
When IT equipment comes to the end of its life, most people’s only concern is to dispose of it, with some consideration for any data that might be on the hard drives. The European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive has very little effect on most people’s thinking.
Will upgrades fuel the dumping?
But what about the technology? IT upgrade cycles are profoundly affected by changes in technology. A new operating system such as Windows 7 could make millions of PCs obsolete overnight, and the eventual withdrawal of support for XP then creates a junk mountain.
However, junking the old PC and buying a new one generally involves a very significant amount of “embedded energy” and most users simply don’t understand the facts well enough. “End of life disposal of these assets is a complex issue that few end-user organisations have expertise or interest in,” says Andrew Donoghue a former eWEEK Europe colleague and now an analyst at the 451 Group.
Is the cycle never-ending? Well maybe not, but getting off the PC-upgrade roundabout will involve moving to different and better technologies, such as desktop virtualisation (VDI).
“Longer term, it will be interesting to see how a move to desktop virtualisation impacts corporate PC upgrade cycles,” says Donoghue. “One result could be the greater adoption of thin clients which may have a longer shelf-life. There is less need to upgrade a thin client to keep pace with client operating system improvements as most of the intelligence resides on the server.”
Where does the waste go?
Of course, there is some energy and hardware cost in moving over to VDI. It generally requires more muscle in the servers, where the desktop processing is concentrated, and there will be more network traffic too.
“Increasing sales of servers and laptops may off-set some of environmental gains from fewer fat clients entering the wastes stream,” agrees Donoghue. He also points out that virtual desktops allow users to access data from more different devices, which will inevitably mean a proliferation of other devices such as smartphones and tablets.
In the end, the only sure way to reduce the kit that goes into the waste stream is awareness. It’s up to all of us to make sure we know where our ICT waste goes now, and what our upgrades will do in the future.