Impact Series

Microsoft talks trash: Tech large goals for zero waste by 2030 in newest environmental initiative

A Microsoft Azure data center. (Microsoft Photo)

Microsoft is rolling out details of its third sustainability focus area: waste reduction. The Redmond, Wash.-based cloud and software behemoth announced Tuesday that it’s setting a goal of reaching zero waste by 2030 for its direct waste production.

The initiative includes efforts on multiple fronts:

  • Building “circular centers” for data centers that provide Azure and Microsoft 365 cloud services. The circular centers will facilitate sorting, reuse and recycling of electronic equipment, keeping it onsite at server farms.
  • A $30 million investment with Closed Loop Partners, a firm that funds research and companies working on waste reduction through greener design, manufacturing and recycling of goods.
  • Eliminating single use plastics in Microsoft packaging within 5 years; making Surface devices recyclable by 2030.
  • Continuing efforts to digitize information on the materials that go into products to track their life cycle and aid with reuse and recycling.

“We hope that what were doing here inspires the broader sector in the same way that our carbon negative impact has,” said Lucas Joppa, Microsoft chief environmental officer, in an interview. “The world needs to achieve a net zero carbon economy by 2050. To do that everybody’s got to do their part. Microsoft and our peers are capable of doing much more.”

Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer. (Microsoft Photo)

For the circular centers initiative, Microsoft built a pilot project in Amsterdam to test the idea and is now constructing a facility in Boydton, Va. Servers in data centers have a 5-year average lifespan, Joppa said, and due to security issues, it can be challenging to repurpose equipment outside of a facility. With the circular design, engineers get around that issue by reusing the materials onsite or within other company facilities.

“Those data centers house an incredible amount of electronics, and what we are putting in place, moving forward, is a first-of-its-kind approach in the industry, to site these new circular centers,” Joppa said.

The zero waste objectives, for which the company did not provide a price tag, are part of a bigger sustainability program that is being rolled.

In January, Microsoft made the bold pledge to become climate negative within a decade and launched a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund to support innovation in carbon reduction and removal. In April the company announced measures supporting global biodiversity and the creation of a “Planetary Computer” to collect, analyze and share data on wild places and the creatures that live there.

The company has yet to share information on its fourth sustainability focus, which is water.

Rhys Roth, executive director for the non-profit Center for Sustainable Infrastructure, applauded the tech giant’s focus on waste and how it connects to broader environmental issues.

“Waste is a huge issue for climate and there is almost no awareness of that,” Roth said.

Roth supports the creation and use of digital tools for providing transparency and detailed accountability for products starting from the the top of the supply chain where resources are extracted from nature, through manufacturing and delivery to reuse, recycling and disposal. While there is so much focus on where an item ultimately ends up the environmental impact of goods has a much longer history.

Microsoft shared some of its product supply chain information in its 2019 Devices Sustainability report, which included details on how it’s sourcing rare minerals and working to support practices that protect workers and the environment.

A bin of Surface tablets at a game between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers game in October 2017. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

While the company is increasingly a leader in the waste arena, it has faced criticism for opposing so called “right to repair” laws that would require tech businesses such as Microsoft and Apple to support the ability of consumers to more easily and cheaply repair their devices.

“We are committed to increasing the repairability of our products and providing consumers with access to convenient, effective and safe repair services,” said a Microsoft spokesperson by email. “Proposed legislation will undermine innovation, competition and consumer protections, including exposure to safety, security and privacy risks.”

The 2019 report cites a commitment to better design products to make them repairable, and Microsoft’s efforts to increase the number of businesses providing repairs as well as auditing them ensure safe practices.

“The idea of waste is just really kind of depressing — on top of the environmental reasons — because it means that we’ve just been lazy,” Joppa said. “That’s what waste is, it’s a lack of ingenuity and a lack of innovation for what you can be doing with something that’s sitting right there in front of you.”

Joppa, the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure and others concerned about waste reframe the challenge as an area for economic growth through cleaner supply chains and reuse.

“Waste is almost purely synonymous with opportunity,” Joppa said, “and surely that’s what we as a human species are good at, is exploiting opportunities.”

Editor’s Note: Funding for GeekWire’s Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.

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