Every year, more than 11 billion tons of waste are produced worldwide according to the United Nations Environment Programme. A by-product of our daily lives and every sector of the world’s economies, the trash we discard pollutes our land, clogs our waterways, depletes our natural resources and contaminates the very air we breathe. Microsoft have recognised the urgent need to protect the world’s ecosystems and reduce the carbon emissions that come from the creation, distribution and disposal of waste. That’s why this week they announced their goal to achieve zero waste for Microsoft’s direct operations, products and packaging by 2030.
Microsoft’s zero-waste goal is the third sprint in their broad environmental sustainability initiative launched earlier this year focusing on carbon, water, ecosystems and waste. They are hoping that by setting themselves these ambitious goals their customers will also be empowered to do the same.
To address their own waste creation, Microsoft will reduce nearly as much waste as they generate while reusing, repurposing or recycling their solid, compost, electronics, construction and demolition, and hazardous wastes. They’ll do this by building first-of-their-kind Microsoft Circular Centers to reuse and repurpose servers and hardware in their datacenters. They’ll also eliminate single-use plastics in their packaging and use technology to improve their waste accounting. They have also stated they will make new investments in Closed Loop Partners’ funds. And finally, they’ll enlist their own employees to reduce their own waste footprints.
By 2030, they will divert at least 90 percent of the solid waste headed to landfills and incineration from their campuses and datacenters, manufacture 100 percent recyclable Surface devices, use 100 percent recyclable packaging (in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, countries), and achieve, at a minimum, 75 percent diversion of construction and demolition waste for all projects. This work builds on their ongoing waste reduction efforts that started in 2008 which resulted in the zero waste certifications of their Puget Sound Campus and their datacenters in Boydton, Virginia and Dublin, Ireland.
Microsoft Circular Centers
To meet the growing demand for their cloud services, their datacenter footprint – and the 3 million servers and related hardware that power it – must expand. Today, these servers have an average lifespan of five years and contribute to the world’s growing e-waste problem. To reduce this waste, Microsoft plan to repurpose and recycle these devices through new Microsoft Circular Centers, which will be located first on their new major datacenter campuses or regions, and eventually added to existing ones.
Using machine learning, Microsoft will process servers and hardware that are being decommissioned onsite. They’ll sort the pieces that can be reused and repurposed by them, their customers, or sold. They will use their learnings about reuse, disassembly, reassembly and recycling with design and supply chain teams to help improve the sustainability of future generations of equipment. Microsoft Circular Centers build on Microsoft’s earlier circular cloud initiatives to extend the lifecycle of their servers and minimise the waste sent to landfills.
In Amsterdam, the Microsoft Circular Center pilot reduced downtime at the datacenter and increased the availability of server and network parts for Microsoft’s own reuse and buy-back by their suppliers. It also reduced the cost of transporting and shipping servers and hardware to processing facilities, which lowered carbon emissions. Microsoft expect the Circular Centers to increase the reuse of their servers and components by up to 90 percent by 2025.
Eliminating single-use plastics in packaging
Approximately 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced every year, 50 percent of which is used one time. And, half of this plastic waste comes from packaging. The scale of this problem and its impact on our oceans, waterways and land requires bold action, which is why we are eliminating single-use plastics from our packaging by 2025. This includes plastic film, primary product packaging and our IT asset packaging in our datacenters.
Improving Waste Data
Today, there is no consistent, high-quality data about the amount of waste, the type and quality, where it is generated and where it goes. In addition, data differs considerably depending on the waste category. For example, data about hazardous waste and electronics is well accounted for and tracked due to regulations and robust management systems for both. However, data about construction and demolition waste does not have consistent measurements or reporting. Waste data needs a standardised methodology, better transparency and higher quality. Without more accurate data, it’s nearly impossible to understand the impact of operational decisions, what goals to set, and how to assess progress, as well as an industry standard for waste footprint methodology.
Since it’s difficult to solve a problem that many don’t fully understand, Microsoft are investing to digitise waste data across the company to identify opportunities to improve waste data collection. This digital solutions for their operations will include technology to track and report on dashboard waste, Power BI platforms for e-waste chain-of-custody and improving Microsoft Power Apps which helps them capture real-time waste data. As they gain clarity and confidence in their broader waste footprint, Microsoft will include more precise waste data in their public reporting.
Climate Innovation Fund Investment: Closed Loop Partners
Microsoft are investing $30 million in Closed Loop Partners’ funds to help accelerate the infrastructure, innovation and business models for supply chain digitisation, e-waste collection, food waste reduction, and recycling industry products to build a more circular economy at scale. Closed Loop Partners is a pioneering investor in circular economy innovation with a track record of working with corporate partners to pilot new solutions. In addition to benefiting from the technologies that are being developed, Microsoft plan to use learnings from their partnership to inform Microsoft’s circular economy initiatives in their devices and cloud value chains, specifically packaging, e-waste and waste diversion from landfills.
Microsoft will share their learning from their own zero waste journey with their customers, who are already using Microsoft technology to better understand, measure and reduce their own waste footprint. In 2019, Microsoft along with H&M, Target, PVH Corp. and others partnered with Eon to explore the need and to formulate a suggestion of global standard powered by Azure called Circular ID. This platform tracks a garment in an effort to create a more sustainable fashion economy by reusing clothing through rental, resale or recycle, rather than being destroyed.
Dutch nonprofit Madaster Foundation is also using digital identities to eliminate waste. Madaster’s platform tags materials with an identity, so they can be recycled, resold and reused, driving more sustainable construction decisions. Vancouver-based Spud.ca and its eGrocery software platform platform FoodX, an online organic food delivery company, built a logistics platform on Microsoft Azure and Dynamics 365 that uses AI to lower food waste. In one year, SPUD diverted 265,971 kilograms of waste from the landfill, preventing 444 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere, and saved 3,564,275 liters of water.
Of course, recycling and reusing materials to divert them from landfills is key to reducing waste. Colchester Borough Council in the U.K. provide services to 192,500 residents, from licensing to recycling. The council is moving function-specific systems to Dynamics 365, unifying its data across intelligent business applications. The recycling tracking system provides reporting via Microsoft Power BI, showing data like heatmaps of problem spots for collections or where residents need more encouragement to recycle.
Resource management firm Veolia is embracing technology to transform its business with circularity in mind. It is using Microsoft technology across its business, from dispatch and garbage collection, and with the use of sensors to collect data including vehicle location, bin weight and location, photo capture of bin contents and more. The data is used for a wide range of scenarios including flagging improper bin contents to prevent problems with downstream recycling and processing.
Enlisting Their Employees
Microsoft’s employees play an important role in the company’s waste footprint. As with their carbon and ecosystems announcement, Microsoft are inviting their employees to participate in their waste reduction efforts. To show employees the impact of their actions and how much waste they generate, they are developing an internal Power BI waste data dashboard. This will be available starting with employees based at the Puget Sound campus and expand to campuses around the world. The dashboard will display the average waste generated per employee and can be used to test effectiveness of waste reduction campaigns, implementation of waste prevention initiatives and more.
In addition, they will launch their first waste reduction challenge, a month-long, online challenge connecting individual action to collective impact later this year. Their employees will have the opportunity to learn how they can participate in Microsoft’s corporate waste program and commit to taking impactful action in their daily lives. The challenge will focus on actions employees can take at home during the global health crisis. These challenges will incorporate themes of waste prevention, material reuse, circular economy and waste equity. They will also create more opportunities for employees to become actively involved, both in company-wide activities, like the annual weeklong hackathon that will include a call for proposals on waste reduction.
Microsoft’s Collective Challenge
No one person or organisation can solve the global waste problem. It will take all of us doing our part, including using better data to understand the problem and make smart waste policy decisions.
Zero waste is an ambitious goal, but Microsoft have stated that minimising their own waste footprint is essential to preserving the natural resources and reducing waste-associated carbon emissions to ensure that economies and societies around the world thrive for generations to come.