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At TechSoup, we love to supply good, solid, low-cost refurbished or remanufactured IT equipment to nonprofits and libraries. It is a little-known fact that remanufactured electronic devices are the most environmentally friendly way to acquire and use computers and other IT equipment.
Among the famous three environmental R's — reduce, reuse, and recycle — the neglected middle child, reuse, doesn't seem to get nearly enough credit. Here's why reusing electronic devices is the best option.
The science that makes the environmental case for refurbished IT equipment is explained by Dr. Eric Williams of Rochester Institute of Technology and Ruediger Kuehr in their book. They wrote Computers and the Environment: Understanding and Managing Their Impacts.
They find that the environmental cost to produce a computer and monitor is immense, especially for microprocessors. Producing the average 53-pound desktop computer and CRT monitor requires 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 50 pounds of chemicals, and 3,330 pounds of water.
According to Williams and Kuehr, adding additional life to computers saves 5 to 20 times more energy than recycling over the computer's life cycle. It's much better for the environment to extend the life of a computer for an extra two or three years than to buy a new one every three to four years.
The thing I found perhaps most interesting in the Williams and Kuehr findings is that 75 percent of PC energy consumption has already happened before a new computer is ever switched on. The energy is used up in the production phase.
If this equipment has a six- or seven-year lifespan rather than three or four years, the environmental impact for even a fraction of the billions of computers and mobile devices now in use in the world will be immense. Here's how immense:
The green argument for electronics reuse goes beyond Williams and Kuehr, however. In his book Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawkin finds that the amount of material that goes into manufacturing a laptop is 4,000 to 1.
When you discard a five-pound laptop, you are also throwing away the 20,000 pounds of raw materials it took to make it.
The hundreds of raw materials that are needed to make electronics devices have an incredibly long and complex supply chain. Circuit boards have one of the longest supply chains of any manufactured item. The materials for them come from mines and factories from all over the world.
The University of Illinois Sustainable Electronics Initiative estimates that each PC or mobile phone contains about half the periodic table.
The EPA's Electronics Environmental Benefits Calculator shows environmental savings for computer recycling and reuse in terms of energy, materials, carbon dioxide, toxic emissions, and more. It finds that it's roughly 25 times more beneficial environmentally to reuse computers than to recycle them at three to five years of age.
That's because remanufacturing significantly reduces total energy consumption of these very resource intensive devices. It also conserves materials.
By retaining the intended purpose of each complex manufactured device, remanufacturing retains all the materials contained in IT equipment. Just the metals alone include aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gallium, gold, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, palladium, platinum, selenium, silver, and zinc.
Some amount of material is lost in the end of life recycling process. So retaining valuable and often toxic materials as long as possible is another reason why reuse is so important for conservation.
Most of us have been frustrated by using a three- or four-year-old computer that takes forever to start up and do simple things like open a web page or send an email message. The main reason for this is that over time, software degrades or corrupts, developing interoperability conflicts and many other glitches.
A machine that is repaired, cleaned out, and has fresh software installed that's appropriate to it pretty much runs as well as the day it was new.
See also our Top 6 Myths About Refurbished Hardware. I like the quote in that post by Sarah Cade of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers in Chicago: "We think of refurbished equipment as well-tested equipment. Most failures happen within the first six months of a computer's life."
The bottom line is that most people do four or five things on computers: email, Internet browsing, accounting, multimedia (video and music), and office applications like word processing. Three- or four-year old equipment does all of that easily.
At TechSoup, another of our missions is to ensure that the refurbished IT equipment that we offer undergoes state-of-the art refurbishment.
Our Refurbished Computer Initiative (RCI) supplies warrantied refurbished laptop and desktop computers to nonprofits and public libraries. The computers come with Windows 10 and Microsoft Office. The RCI program also offers free end-of-life takeback and recycling via our refurbishment partners, InterConnection, PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, and our newest refurbishment partner, PCs for People — which is about as environmentally beneficial as it gets.
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Image 2: John Hain / CC0
For years I've purchased refurbished machines rather than new. It's saved me lots of money and is great for the environment.
In my work I've outfitted our organisation with refurbished machines to minimise cost, more importantly to reduce our environmental footprint.
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.