Companies replace IT equipment every four to five years, a waste of critical raw materials with huge environmental and social costs, argues Cranfield University professor Mark Jolley. With refurbished computers now nearly as high-performing as new, there needs to be an end to the make-use-dispose culture

The average PC is a lavish and exotic piece of work: copper from Chile, gold from Mali, iron ore from Brazil, nickel from the Congo, bauxite from Peru. Many components depend on rare earth or platinum group metals highlighted as under threat in the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Review, the fragile supplies of which are described as Europe’s “Achilles heel”.

It’s not only an issue of using up limited resources. There are costs that are never reflected in the relatively low, market-driven prices offered to wealthy consumers. Mining operations damage land, use up huge amounts of energy and lead to pollution in soil and water systems. Reportedly, harsh working conditions are typical and include the use of child labour.

And yet, these costly treasures are thrown out, as part of the standard cycle of IT “estate” replacement by employers. The typical lifecycle of three to four years – when the cost of maintenance is believed to be greater than the cost of replacement – has recently shifted be closer to four to five years. But this still means there were 260 million new PC machines purchased last year (says an IDC report). Consumer demand for IT devices generally means intensifying competition for all these precious raw materials. By 2020 the consultancy Mercer predicts people will have three times as many IT gadgets as they did in 2014.

Professor Mark Jolly, Cranfield University

Tightening regulations on e-waste have led to standard systems for recycling in the developed world. When large organisations replace the old machines some parts will be properly recycled. But much IT hardware is also sent to developing countries, where there is only haphazard waste management and materials are still, in the end, simply dumped.

So we’re caught in a whirlpool of IT updates. It’s a system and culture that is continually working against a sensible level of sustainability. Manufacturer and service provider business models rely on the idea of obsolescence, and the shorter the cycle the better; it’s part of the professional identity of IT managers to show they are providing the latest services for employees. Outdated IT, whether for personal or business use, has become one of the great social and cultural embarrassments of our century.

By 2020 Mercer predicts people will have three times as many IT gadgets as they did in 2014

The argument continues to be that the hardware replacement cycle is also essential for effective day-to-day operations. New work by Cranfield University research student Mauricio Alva-Howes, though, has provided evidence for a re-think. Organisations can save significant costs and demonstrate corporate social responsibility by looking at refurbishing over replacement.

We have reached a stage where the improvements in functionality and performance are shrinking – our PCs do everything we need, as quickly as they need to. So the criteria for keeping PCs for longer is also shrinking: they just need to work. In his study, Alva-Howes carried out a range of benchmarking tests comparing the performance of re-manufactured HP, Lenovo and Dell laptops - machines which have been cleaned and refurbished - against that of new models from the same brands.

Wokers on a non-Fairtrade artisinal gold mine in Africa (credit: Ian Berry Magnum Photos)

Tests on the most typical uses of PCs in a work setting - office systems like email, word processing and the use of spreadsheets, databases and video conferencing - showed overall that the remanufactured computers performed at between 93% and 97% of the level set by the new computer. There is a small fall-off in performance when it comes to graphic processing, and in some cases with battery life, but in terms of everyday use by employees, the differences are minimal. New, updated models, filled with another new supply of rare materials extracted at high environmental costs, don’t deliver value.

The remanufactured laptops used in the research came from A2C Services, an established IT re-use and recycling business which has developed Circular Computer services. Large employers with huge IT estates can opt for a circular economy approach: sending their used machines for refurbishing, and taking on a supply of remanufactured PCs. As part of the model, A2C makes a donation to environmental charities addressing the impacts of the IT manufacturing industry.

New PCs, filled with another new supply of rare materials extracted at high environmental costs, don’t deliver value

Across the manufacturing sector there is a need for new business models, where re-use can replace the make-use-dispose cycle. Why shouldn’t we purchase computing capability by the hour rather than buying our own new hardware every three or four years? Does everyone need to have their own car?

What’s needed at this stage are more role models. It would set a powerful example for the IT profession if high-profile employers adopted the re-use approach to IT, providing a bank of evidence on the viability of the approach. Only this way can there be the culture change required, breaking through the rigid perceptions of what constitutes the “necessary” in our age of digital working.

Professor Mark Jolly is head of sustainable manufacturing, Cranfield University,

Main image credit: honzik7/Shutterstock Inc.


circular economy  digital economy  IT  Cranfield University  rare earth minerals  Conflict minerals  Human rights 

comments powered by Disqus