Responsible IT Asset Disposal Drives Sustainability & Business Value

Equinix's electronics disposal program embeds circularity throughout the digital value chain

Melissa Gray
Responsible IT Asset Disposal Drives Sustainability & Business Value

Today is Earth Day, with this year’s theme being “Planet vs. Plastics.” This is an opportunity to pause and reflect on how we can make smarter decisions about the materials we use—whether that means plastics, metals or others—to reduce our impact on planetary and human health. In the IT industry, responsible asset disposal is an important part of this equation.

To keep up with the rapid pace of innovation and new customer demands, today’s businesses are transitioning to higher-density solutions and upgrading to the latest and greatest versions of memory, disks and processors. As this happens, the question becomes what to do with excess and obsolete equipment. Equinix has been making progress to ensure our IT assets are on a more circular and beneficial path.

Our Responsible Electronics Disposal (RED) program is how we manage our electronics asset lifecycle to minimize environmental impact, avoid security issues, and recapture value from our IT investments.

An asset disposal strategy must balance environmental, security and financial priorities

Responsible asset disposal is taking on new importance in light of the progressive sustainability targets businesses are setting for themselves and their extended value chains. While a piece of technology may no longer make sense for a certain reference architecture, it may serve a higher or better use if refurbished and remarketed to someone who can give it a second useful life. This also avoids the time, cost and environmental impact of extracting raw materials, manufacturing and transporting a new asset.

As they dispose of assets, companies should measure their data exposure, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions incurred from the processing and transport of end of life (EOL) assets, GHG emissions avoided by securely refurbishing and reselling assets, and the financial return on their assets.

Data security should be the top priority. While the goal is to provide a second useful life whenever possible, some data-bearing components are simply too vulnerable to be safely reused in their current form. At Equinix, our InfoSec and Procurement teams collaborate across business functions to ensure our Global Asset Sanitization and Destruction standard defines how our data classifications relate to internal data procedures and specifies additional physical and virtual handling requirements all the way through to our supplier partners. We also cascade these principles into the way we select and manage suppliers to ensure they’re measured on how well they meet the security, sustainability and financial aspects of our framework.

It’s important for businesses to have policies and procedures to know the classification of data stored on devices throughout their lifecycles. If they can see that a particular drive was only used to store public data, then they know there’s no risk involved with simply wiping the asset and giving it a second useful life—either elsewhere in their enterprise or by refurbishing and remarketing it. To keep waste to a minimum, they must make sure they’re only destroying components where the data-bearing asset carries risk.

Nearly all electronics in data centers contain rare earth raw materials that are finite and may be difficult and expensive to acquire, so it’s important companies not let those materials go to waste. Ideally, we should all move away from the linear mindset of take-make-use-dispose and fully participate in the circular economy. As assets reach EOL for our use, we evaluate them to determine which ones could be securely refurbished and resold, repurposed internally, or recycled to harvest critical parts and components. This allows us to put embodied carbon and raw materials back into the marketplace. Our goal is to only send to landfills the things that truly can’t be reused or recycled. The GHG emissions associated with refurbishing and remarketing an asset versus recycling it are vastly different, and this should be factored into a company’s carbon footprint.

This all ends up at the bottom line: As they make decisions on security and environmental factors, businesses will see the difference it makes to the financial value of their IT assets. Of course, it goes without saying that businesses should recapture as much value as possible from the IT assets they’re retiring. They can achieve this by using secure and sustainable third-party value recovery partners who can safely process assets, components or raw materials that still have value.

An effective asset disposal framework properly balances all three of these responsibilities—a company’s responsibility to protect sensitive data, its responsibility to the environment, and its responsibility to recapture financial value on behalf of its stakeholders. At Equinix, we believe we’ve made great strides toward achieving this balance with our RED program.

Making progress in the circular economy

At Equinix, we know firsthand how important and challenging it can be to create an asset disposal program that balances all three priorities and then replicate it across hundreds of facilities. In the past, we traditionally managed EOL assets on a location-by-location basis. As we considered this approach in the context of our broader sustainability and security ambitions as a publicly traded REIT, we knew we needed to do more. To help us reach our security, environmental and financial goals, we needed an enterprise-scale program that would make circularity an ingrained part of our global operations.

This was the impetus that led us to create the RED program. We aim for every piece of Equinix-owned electronics that reaches the end of its Equinix life—be it compute, network or storage—to be assessed through the program to determine how it might go on to its highest and best use after it leaves our data center. In 2023, 37% of Equinix-owned servers that left our business were given a second useful life through refurbishment and remarketing.

As a founding signatory of the Climate Neutral Data Center Pact (CNDCP), Equinix partnered with more than 100 data center operators and trade associations to support the goals of the European Green Deal. The CNDCP aims to create the green infrastructure needed to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.[1] In accordance with goals set by the CNDCP, we’re working to increase the percentage of Equinix-owned infrastructure remarketed through the RED program.

The RED program is based on three pillars, which help us address each of the three priorities outlined above:

Data security standards

Our Global InfoSec Asset Sanitization and Destruction Standard is a company-wide policy that establishes the responsibility individual employees have to understand the data classification of different devices. It also outlines procedures for physically and virtually removing data before sending a device to an approved supplier. Our goal is to keep as many hard drives out of landfills as possible, and this standard helps us decide when it’s safe to reuse a drive instead of destroying it.

Global governance

It’s essential that we get everyone in the company aligned to the standards of the RED program, and that we’re all processing materials and reporting data in the same way. To support this goal, a cross-functional group of leaders sets program standards and evaluates monthly results to measure program performance, including data security, sustainability (how much embodied carbon we’re incurring and avoiding), and how much financial value we’re recovering.

Supplier selection and management policies

We’ve set a high bar when it comes to suppliers, and we take rigorous steps to evaluate and monitor all suppliers before allowing them into the program. We need partners that have the same commitment to responsible asset disposal that we have. To find them, we look for suppliers that can demonstrate this commitment through certifications and self-auditing programs across the three legs of our framework.

We want our suppliers to manage assets responsibly from both an environmental and a social perspective. For instance, we don’t want our assets processed using prison labor, so our standards ensure suppliers have processes in place to prevent that from happening. (See our Business Partner Code of Conduct for more information on the expectations we set for suppliers and other partners.)

Circularity is just one example of the Equinix sustainability strategy in action

Implementing circular economy best practices throughout the company is a long and ongoing process. We plan to continue building out the RED program into a global initiative that is consistently aligned to our business objectives and industry requirements.

We believe that every Equinix employee has a role to play in making the RED program a success. For our Earth Day campaign last year, we encouraged employees to turn in Equinix-owned devices to be processed at 15 different data center sites. We were then able to share with employees exactly how many units we collected and how many pounds of embodied carbon they helped keep out of landfills.

To learn more about the Equinix thinking around the circular economy and other sustainability topics, check out our annual sustainability report. You’ll learn about the vision that drives our sustainability strategy and see the latest progress we’ve made toward executing that strategy.

 

[1] Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact

 

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Melissa Gray Sr Director, Supply Chain, ESG & Corporate Services
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