Once is never enough

March 2018

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Worked with the Ellen MacAruthur Foundation to analyze ongoing circular economy practices in our data centers

Closeup of many small circuit boards in a pile.

Maybe you’re one of the less than one percent of Google employees authorized to ever to set foot into a data center. If so, you’ll first get your identity verified at the campus security gate, then undergo security screening at building reception, then pass through a secure exterior corridor, and ultimately go through a multifactor access control process involving lenticular badges and biometrics.

Finally on the “floor,” you’ll find yourself surrounded by an ocean of servers and miles of fiber optics, all humming along under a glow of blue light. This data center in Lenoir, North Carolina, and Google’s 13 other data centers around the globe, are the true beating heart of the digital age, and they’re also the star of Google’s quest to move to a new type of economy—the circular economy.

A European Google data center with wind turbines in the background
Our data center in Eemshaven, the Netherlands.

Today’s economy is linear: it has a beginning and an end. Companies dig up materials, turn those materials into a product, and then ship that product to an end user who eventually tosses it in the trash. But that system has to change. In 2017, global demand for resources was roughly 1.7 times what the Earth can support in one year, which means the linear economy model will soon slam into the edge of its physical limits.

A circular economy model is restorative and regenerative by design. Products, components and materials in a circular economy are quite literally made to be made again—they are created to be easily refurbished, repaired, reused and recycled. “A strong circular economy begins at the design stage,” explains Chris Adam, Google Supply Chain Manager. “The challenge is to design products and technology with regeneration in mind right from the beginning, without ever sacrificing performance.”

Google’s long-standing push to get more out of every element in its data centers has been the focus of a partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit that helps companies around the world adopt circular economy practices and experience the enormous benefits. "Circular economy principles present the digital industry, as all sectors, with a raft of new opportunities for resilient growth decoupled from resource constraints," explained Ian Banks at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Google chose their data centers—facilities responsible for powering products like Search, Gmail and YouTube for billions of people 24/7—as the subject of their analysis with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation team because data centers generally tend to be material intensive. They are like small cities filled with servers, drives, routers and other components that, due to massive use and the rapid pace of technological change, once had relatively short and finite life spans. Every efficiency in that environment has the potential to yield a huge positive impact. It was a perfect place to zoom in and quantify the many initiatives underway.

Inside a server room in the Council Bluffs data center
Our Council Bluffs data center provides over 115,000 square feet of space. We make the best out of every inch, so you can use services like Search and YouTube in the most efficient way possible.

Google worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation team to analyze ongoing circular economy practices in Google data centers through the lens of four strategies:

MAINTAIN: Simply put, the goal of maintaining is to get more life out of every single material in the data center. When servers require repairs, parts are increasingly replaced with refurbished parts taken from previous Google servers—giving hard drives an extended useful life. In 2016, 22% of the components Google used for machine upgrades were refurbished inventory.

REFURBISH: Google custom builds and remanufactures its own servers with refurbishing in mind from the start. But before any hard drives are removed from rotation, all data is overwritten. The override is then verified with a complete disk read, a process that ensures no trace of customer data can possibly remain on the hard drive. Then the decommissioned servers take a second lap in the circle of life—they’re dismantled into separate components (motherboard, CPU, hard drives, etc.), inspected, and prepped for use as refurbished inventory. Refurbished parts are used to build remanufactured servers with performance equivalent to brand new machines. In 2016, 36% of servers Google deployed were remanufactured machines. Server upgrades and repairs also tap the refurbished inventory pool.

REUSE: Just because Google no longer has the need for a particular piece of technology doesn’t mean that component doesn’t have value. Google does quarterly evaluations and redistributes the data centers’ commercially useful excess component inventory. Unused components are wiped clean and checked multiple times in preparation for resale on the secondary market. “The circular economy has pushed us to look at more creative ways to find reuse channels. We’ve created better tools and processes that identify reuse opportunities across Google and developed new external resale channels for materials that may have previously been scrapped,” explained Chris Adam. Last year, over 2.1 million units were resold by Google and productively reused by other organizations around the world.

RECYCLE: Google maximizes the recycling of all data center materials. For hard drives that can’t be resold, Google has a multi-step destruction process designed to further ensure that none of the data can ever be accessed. One step involves a “crusher” that drives a steel piston through the center of the drive, deforming the platters and making them unreadable. The drives are then shredded before the remains are sent along with other electronic waste to a recycling partner for secure processing.

A Google engineer swaps out a motherboard
A Google engineer swaps out a motherboard. When server parts break, we first try to repair them. If we can't, we break them down to the component level for recycling.

Multiple strategies, including a commitment to find new uses for materials, led to an 86% landfill diversion rate globally for data centers in 2016, with six of Google’s 14 data centers reaching 100% diversion.

The circular economy initiatives at work in Google data centers are a perfect blend of good for planet and good for business. “The scale at which we repurpose and reuse materials is astounding,” remarked Shobhit Rana, Google Networking Planning Lead. “The positive impact it has is not only environmental, but also economical.”

In addition to practices in their data centers, Google has a long list of other current and future circular economy shifts happening around the globe—including utilizing technology in the Google cafés to avoid food waste, and continuing as the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy.

“Our goal is to embed circular economic principles into the fabric of Google’s infrastructure, operations, and culture,” says Kate Brandt, Google’s Lead for Sustainability.

“What that means is that we’ll be focusing on opportunities wherever possible to eradicate waste through circular design—at our data centers, in our kitchens, on our campuses, in all we do around the world.”

Further Reading

  • September, 2016

    Circular economy at work in Google data centers

    This case study reviews the practices we have implemented through maintenance, refurbishment/remanufacturing, redistribution/secondary market sales, and recycling.

    Learn more