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Waste Not
Down in the Dumps:
The Need for Rational IT Sustainability Policies

25% of organisations that say they have a sustainable IT policy dump or destroy their obsolescent hardware — the least sustainable ways of handling them. Here's a business case for better IT lifecycle management.

In 3 Step IT’s recent international survey (results to be released soon), we found that 18 percent of organisations that say they have a sustainable IT policy take their obsolescent hardware to the dump, and another 8 percent have it destroyed. These answers are inconsistent, because apart from dumping them in a field, landfilling or destroying used devices are the least sustainable ways of handling them. Even salvaging hardware for parts is poor end-of-life practice.

It is easy to see how this kind of misunderstanding might arise. The everyday use of laptops or mobile phones is an obvious cause of CO2 emissions. While obvious, everyday use is not the main cause, which comes when manufacturing the laptop. In this case, recycling IT devices reduces landfill waste, but increases CO2 emissions, because it increases the need to manufacture replacement laptops.

Across society, sustainability has become a critical issue, so it is important to understand how to make your business and operations more sustainable. Saving energy is good, but reducing emissions is better. Companies should consider using circular supply chains. Rather than the traditional ‘take, make, dispose’ model, a circular economy reuses products and materials to minimise waste and make the most of our natural resources.

Emissions versus energy

When considering CO2 emissions, transport immediately springs to mind, especially air and car travel. Less obvious, perhaps, IT emissions also produce megatons of CO2 globally. The typical laptop produces around 300 kg of CO2 over its life, comparable to a return flight from Heathrow to Dubai.

Research suggests that by 2040, IT devices —- laptops, PCs, monitors, smartphones and tablets — will account for 14 percent of the global carbon footprint, more than half of the contribution of the entire transport sector. Breaking this down, the production of these devices plays a much more significant role in creating emissions than their everyday use. For example, Apple reports that 83 percent of the lifetime carbon dioxide associated with the iPhone X comes from the manufacturing process. Clearly, reusing technology mitigates IT’s contribution to CO2 emissions.

From a sustainability perspective, while recycling obsolescent IT should ensure some valuable metal reuse, it is only a partial solution. Every time an organisation throws away a laptop, phone, or tablet they need a new one to replace it. By comparison, if old devices are refurbished they can be reused by a less demanding user and displace the need to manufacture replacements.

50 megatons of e-waste — and growing

In 2018, organisations and consumers together produced 49.8 million metric tonnes of e-waste globally. That’s hard to conceive, so to give it a human scale — this is roughly the weight of 5,000 Eiffel Towers of e-waste being produced every year. Worse still, the rate of production is increasing, forecast to increase by a quarter over the next 5 years.

While nearly a third of organisations with sustainable IT policies dump or destroy obsolescent devices, the 85 percent of organisations with IT policies that do not consider sustainability compound the problem. In our survey, this group said they use the dump even more, with 60 percent taking obsolescent devices to the dump or destroying them.

There is significant scope to include sustainability criteria within IT policies, and to subject sustainability policies to greater scrutiny. Not only will this help reduce e-waste, pursuing the reuse route will also raise cash from the old equipment to reinvest in IT.

Where do we go from here?

Evidence of human impact on fragile ecosystems surrounds us, and we continue to overconsume finite resources. Reusing IT is part of the solution: one way to reduce the carbon footprint, raw materials used and e-waste produced.

The choice is not between being sustainable and being profitable. There is a business case for more sustainable behaviour: Quite simply, reusing IT will extract more value than recycling. IT departments can sell used devices to a specialist and avoid recycling fees and landfill taxes. There is also a change coming in buying behaviour: organisations with sustainability policies will require suppliers to meet their sustainability standards; this practice started in Sweden, and is spreading south. Even if not a mandatory buying criterion, demonstrable sustainability can help differentiate your organisation and create a competitive edge.

IT devices are natural candidates for circular business models. Use an IT life cycle service based on a circular economy approach, and your IT device policies offer a route to more sustainable IT. This is a simple step to improve the sustainability of your operations while developing a plan to do better. Not only does this choice makes good commercial sense, it is also the right thing to do for the planet.