Importance of sustainable IT

The growth of IT systems and its impact

The growth of IT systems has expanded new possibilities at Waterloo. From distance education and conferencing to expanded research and collaboration opportunities, Waterloo has long been a pioneer in integrating technology in the campus.

However, technology does have a large societal impact.

Estimates suggest IT accounts for approximately 3-4% of global electricity use, and around 2% of emissions. If that were represented as a country, it would likely be larger than Canada’s entire carbon emissions.

The manufacture of many IT devices and systems is also material intensive, requiring minerals like copper, gold, and other precious metals, as well as hazardous materials such as mercury cadmium, and battery chemicals. Plastics, glass, and rare earth metals are also required inputs into most technologies, as are cardboard and plastic for packaging and transportation.

Many IT products, such as phones and computers, are also designed to be replaced on very short timeframes, which leads to significant electronic waste (e-waste). Around 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated annually around the world, and over 700,000 tonnes in Canada alone as of 2014.

Row of desktops
Circular, Efficient, Low Carbon, Ethical Symbols

Sustainable IT

Of course, IT is also an essential part of the sustainability transition, enabling low-carbon and circular economy innovation in every industry.

Sustainable technology, then, is technology that is:

  1. Circular – eliminating waste and extending the lifespan of materials at each stage of extraction, design, manufacture, use, and disposal.
  2. Efficient – using less energy and consumables to accomplish their core purpose.
  3. Low carbon – powering all energy used in extraction, manufacturing, and product use from clean and renewable sources.
  4. Ethical – ensuring safe and fair working and living environments at all stages of product creation and use.

Opportunity for Change

There is enormous opportunity for change, and the IT landscape is changing. Companies are powering their manufacturing processes and servers with renewable energy. The industry continues to build supply chain transparency to minimize the impact of resource extraction, on both the environment and societies. And there are growing pushes for circular innovation – ensuring that products maximize the lifespan of their materials through repair, reuse, and recycling at every stage of production and use.

Sustainable IT in Higher Education

As significant users of technology across campuses, the higher education sector can have a role to support sustainable technology. Integrating sustainability considerations into purchasing decisions not only helps solve these core challenges, but also reduces risk for Waterloo’s supply chain, builds brand value, and has the potential to create operational and energy savings.

In 2021, IST and the Sustainability Office conducted a survey of IT leaders (Chief Information Officers or equivalent) from higher-education institutions across Canada on how they are approaching Sustainable IT. Highlights from the survey include:

  • Areas with the most developed approaches included paper management, ink and toner management, and energy use
  • Fewer than a quarter of institutions have established a formal or informal committee to guide further campus-wide efforts
60% of respondents said Sustainable IT practices were currently important. 100% responded that they would be within the next five years.