With the fast-moving pace of the tech industry, new versions of mobile phones and laptops are constantly developed and presented on the market. More than 266 million mobile phones were sold in 2019 – in Europe alone. Sadly, these units are not in use for long. The average lifecycle of a mobile phone is just under three years, and for laptops it’s less than five.
Lofti Belkhir, Professor at McMaster University, points out that ‘when we think about climate change, the main sources of carbon emissions that come to mind for most of us are heavy industries like petroleum, mining and transportation; (…) rarely do we point the finger at computer technologies.’
And yet, this constant flux of new ICT products was responsible for 3.5% of the total carbon footprint in 2007 and is expected to amount to 14% by 2040, making it a major contributor to the climate crisis.
ICT Environmental Impacts
It’s not a secret that a large part of the global ICT emission footprint comes from the production phase. Laptops and smartphones are highly resource intense, copper, lead and gold being some of the valuable materials found within. The extraction of these materials leaves giant dents in our planet and is extremely energy-intensive. The non-use phase, i.e. the manufacturing and distribution of new products as well as disposal of old ones, accounts for about 72 percent of smartphones’ total climate impact. Even though the use-phase still makes up for 20 to 30 percent of the total energy footprint, this is likely to change with the movement towards renewable energy sources. The tech industry, on the other hand, is still behind on this front and many ICT items are manufactured using non-renewable sources (mainly coal).
When we buy a new device, the old one either ends up forgotten in a drawer, in a recycling facility or the trash. If thrown in the regular trash, small-size electronics end up in landfills and cause hazardous materials to seep into the soil and groundwater or vaporize into the atmosphere, affecting nature and human health. The global e-waste generated in 2019 was approximately 53.6 million metric tons. Most likely, more than 80 percent of that e-waste was not formally collected or managed environmentally. Even recycling, if done improperly, can cause harm to the environment and the individual performing it.
So what can we do?
We live in a society that is heavily dependent on technology, and we, as a tech start-up, are reliant on software to solve the climate crisis. Evidence shows that extending the lifetime of ICT items has environmental benefits. A laptop, for example, should be extended from the current average of 4 years to at least 7 years. Longer than that is even better.
The extension of lifetime can be achieved in different ways. One option is reusing and refurbishing the electronic devices if possible, instead of replacing them with completely new products. Extending the lifetime of a smartphone by just one year would save about 2.1 million tons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to taking more than a million cars off the road. Items that have been left in storage unused or would otherwise be thrown away are extremely valuable and perfect for reuse. When no new components are needed, the energy required for remanufacturing is less than 1% of the total energy needed for material production and manufacturing of a new phone.
In using solutions like those offered by GIAB, ‘We Reuse’ and we are embracing this more circular approach when it comes to buying hardware to minimize our contribution to the ICT emission footprint. We invite other tech companies to do the same and think twice before buying new hardware. Taking this small step is a win both for the climate and your purse.