A journey to circular procurement –
the unexpected outcomes of Aalborg’s circular ICT pilot
April 28, 2020
By Ashleigh McLennan
Sustainable Economy and Procurement Officer – ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability
Overlooking the Vor Frue Kirke ("Church of Our Lady")
IMAGE: Lasse Bruhn
ICT is one of the fastest-growing greenhouse gas emitting sectors, and its complex, global supply chains can include hotspots of human and environmental injustices. However, through holistic circular procurement approaches, cities can act as powerful market actors. Even relatively small cities like Aalborg (Denmark), which spends an estimated 2.5% of their annual budget on ICT equipment and software, can make an impact by thinking beyond what they buy, to also considering how they buy, use and dispose of their ICT equipment, and what happens to it once it in its next life.
This holistic approach to purchasing is at the core of circular procurement, or “the process by which public authorities purchase work, goods or services that seek to achieve closed energy and material loops whilst minimising and in the best case avoiding, negative environmental impacts and waste creation across their whole lifecycle” (ICLEI, 2017). In practical terms, this cannot be done by procurers alone, and instead requires collaboration and communication across organisations. The journey which Aalborg has been on as part of its circular ICT pilot is a perfect example of the organisational change and collaboration needed to achieve circularity.
As a starting point, Aalborg began its pilot process by mapping how ICT is currently being purchased, used and disposed of across the organisation. Its first discovery was that it is currently committed to a national framework contract for ICT equipment, not due to expire until at least October 2020 (with the option to extend to 2022). For some, this could have already signalled the end of the journey, but not Aalborg, which instead identified options to use the existing framework more effectively, including identifying the most sustainable laptops currently available, plus the option to lease instead of purchase equipment using this framework.
Vestre Havnepromenade along the Limfjord River
IMAGE: VisitAalborg Convention Bureau
Next, Aalborg considered how it could improve the in-use environmental impacts of its ICT. The Environmental Department tested the energy consumption of equipment in their own offices, and found large differences between items (new screens, for example, are up to 10 times more efficient). The ICT Department now want to test more equipment, to understand their current use better and make improvements. At the same time, they have looked at how long laptops are being kept in use, and found that after 3-4 years they are usually replaced, as this can be cheaper than the labour costs of maintaining old equipment. The Environmental Department now wants to test lengthening the use period of laptops to 5-6 years.
Finally, Aalborg looked for other opportunities to close the circle of ICT products. It discovered a disjointed picture. Initially, only two of the city’s ICT departments had contracts for the collection of used laptops. Now all seven have made temporary arrangements, but these are still mainly focused on financial returns, without much thought to what is happening to the laptops and the materials contained within them once disposed. Some departments also have agreements to donate used items to the City’s Internal Project Unit (which supports employment of people outside the labour market) or have special arrangements with the users, such as in schools, where school children are allowed to purchase their laptops at a discounted price after a certain period.
What became clear through Aalborg’s circular procurement work is that while contracts exist with positive intentions, they are overall not comprehensive enough to capture the large volume of all types of ICT waste (including mobile phones, tablets, monitors and servers), and not ambitious enough to ensure resources were captured and reused at the highest value possible. Aalborg realised that if all seven departments of the municipality joined forces and pooled their ICT waste, they could present a much more attractive offer to ICT take-back suppliers, and in turn have a larger impact on the local market. Through much hard work to consult with and convince all seven ICT departments, a steering group was set up to ensure that all their needs would continue to be met and that current beneficiaries (such as the Internal Project Unit and school children) were not adversely affected.
Cycling forms a central part of life in Aalborg
IMAGE: VisitAalborg Convention Bureau
Kick-starting a collaborative approach across all seven departments requires commitment - from a practical perspective alone, finding a time where everyone can meet takes time, especially in cases like this where departments are working together on a tender for the first time. As well as pooling resources to have a bigger impact on the market, collaborative working across an organisation is also necessary to overcome barriers such as budgetary silos. Resources and effort invested by the procurement department result in savings for the ICT-departments, so making sure all departments are working together is essential.
Consulting businesses also led Aalborg to some unexpected solutions. For example, the City discovered that their practice of engraving laptops with its logo was making laptops much more difficult and expensive to reuse. This policy of engraving laptops was raised internally, and it was decided that this security measure (dating from an earlier time when laptops were far more expensive), was no longer necessary. As a result, the policy is being changed, and will result in a relatively easy win for circular reuse opportunities.
Finally, it is essential that procurers have the time to try something new, and the support of their superiors to do so. In the ICT departments, for example, the focus is rightly to support employees with ICT. Other goals such as sustainability and CO2 reduction are therefore not at the centre of their work. But informing staff of how they can contribute to important societal goals, such as reducing emissions or the use of conflict minerals, and giving them ‘permission’ to contribute to these goals through their work, is necessary to integrating circularity into normal working practices.
As a result of Aalborg’s circular procurement pilot, the awareness among the ICT departments has increased greatly since the beginning of the process, and a series of successful improvements have been identified and made along the way. For those promoting circular procurement in cities, the lessons are clear – change takes time and commitment, but by involving the right people, and providing the resources for procurers to develop new approaches, many positive benefits can be achieved.
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