More than half of government ICT waste now reused – but landfill creeps up

Annual report identifies opportunity for ‘ethical and more lucrative approach’ to technology disposals

Credit: Pxhere

Well over half of the ICT waste created by central government last year was reused – but, after coming down to nearly zero, the proportion going to landfill has crept back up.

Published today, the annual Greening Government ICT report reveals that, of the 2.3 million kg of e-waste created by departments in 2021, 1.25 million kg was sold on or given to charity for subsequent reuse. 

This represents 54% of the total waste volume – a figure that has risen from 50.9% in 2020 and just 21.3% in 2021.

A further 39.1% was fully recycled in 2021, and 5.3% was recovered – referring to a process that creates waste but, effectively, offsets this via the concurrent creation of energy or new materials.

Although only 1.6% of waste went to landfill last year, the figure for the two preceding years was 0.3% in 2020 and just 0.02% in 2019, the report indicates. 

By volume, 36,776 kg of government ICT went to landfill in 2021: the highest amount since 2015, the first year of recording. Last year’s volume of waste was also almost seven times bigger than the prior year – and 86 times bigger than in 2019, when just 426 kg of ICT was sent to landfill.

The increase in technology that was not reused, recycled, or recovered can, in part, be attributed to an overall increase in waste created. The 2.3 million kg total of 2021 is more than 400,000 kg bigger than in any other year since the report was first published in 2015.

This “reflects government ICT transformation programmes towards smarter working and cloud provision for data hosting as we move to mobile devices and hosting services, removing our legacy infrastructure”, the report said.

Government ICT waste in 2021
Total waste created: 2.32m kg
Reuse – 54%  
Recycle – 39.1%
Recovery – 5.3%
Landfill – 1.6%

Government ICT waste in 2020 
Total waste created: 1.72m kg
Reuse – 50.9%
Recycle – 40.5%
Recover – 8.3%
Landfill – 0.3% 

While recognising the increases of the past two years, the document adds that the proportion of government tech waste that went to landfill was about 6% a decade ago. The target of zero landfill is thus “on track” it argues – particularly given the big boost in reuse, which helped deliver to government returns of almost £2m last year.

The report adds that greater coordination across government agencies could not only help meet sustainability targets, but also deliver further financial benefits.

“The approach by departments to dealing with its end-of-life ICT varies across government,” the report said. “All departments contract out the responsibility. Many pay for recycling services then receive a rebate on value reclaimed from the raw materials and rare earth elements, some allow the waste to be taken for free leaving the contractor to reclaim any costs through resale, and some others offer a mixture of the two. What is clear is that there isn’t a consistent view, or process, or guidance/policy and with the amount of waste approaching two million kilograms there is an opportunity for government to adopt a smarter, coordinated, ethical and perhaps more lucrative approach to managing its ICT lifecycle.”

Other highlights from 2021 cited by the annual update include the reduction in travel enabled by the 38 million e-conferences held by government during the year – compared with 18.3 million in 2020, and just 3.5 million in 2018/19.

In the last 12 months a majority of departments’ digital and IT leaders have submitted “strategy statements setting out proactive sustainable ICT projects and programmes”, while government’s cloud and hosting suppliers have also provided energy consumption data for “the vast majority of departments”, the report said.

The number of agencies contributing to the most recent update stood at 34 – compared with 25 in the prior-year report.

The Greening Government ICT Strategy was published in 2013 and updated in 2020; work on delivering and reporting on the strategy’s objectives is led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

“Defra recognises that the carbon footprint of ICT worldwide is on par with the aviation industry and is expected to increase,” the department said, in the executive summary of the latest annual progress update. “ICT waste is also a growing worldwide issue and supply chains are under increased scrutiny for their use of modern slavery, conflict minerals and rare earth elements, as well as their contribution to, and impacts from, climate change.”

It added: “The HM Government Sustainable Technology Advice and Reporting team ensures that government ICT services are designed, delivered and operated with sustainable principles at their core. This includes our procurement choices (which cover not just the origin of the kit we buy but how it’s transported, the packaging in which it’s delivered and whether it can be reused or recycled when no longer required) how our ICT is used (ranging from kit which uses less energy to technology which reduces the need for travel) and disposal (including repair, reuse and recycling).”


Sam Trendall

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