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Annika Overodder, TCO Development: 'Can we use our computers forever? Six steps toward a circular economy'

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

AUTHORS: Annika Overodder

As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'. 

Annika Overodder, Market Development, from sustainability certification organisation, TCO Development, tells us what you can do to be a more sustainable digital consumer. 

This month, National Geographic’s cover story is titled “The End of Trash - can we save the planet by reusing all the stuff we make?”  Suddenly, mainstream media has  moved the idea of the circular economy to front and center in the consumer conscience. So what would a global shift toward zero-waste, circular solutions mean for how we buy and use computers and other devices, both now and in the future?

The linear economy is not sustainable

Today’s dominating economic model is linear. We take virgin natural resources and make products from them, which we then either discard, store or recycle once we’re done using them — often before their usable life is up. This approach to consumption and production is ruining fragile ecosystems, depleting valuable natural resources and adding to the global waste crisis.

The global e-waste crisis continues

50 million metric tons of electronic waste is being generated per year worldwide. Recycling rates are at best around 20% and many products that are discarded still have some usable life or reusable materials. E-waste contains valuable metals as well as hazardous substances that are often released into the environment and are hazardous to human health. Even more waste is generated when the products are manufactured — to make a notebook computer, 1,200 kilograms of waste is produced, for example from the mining and metals industries. 

Circular economy means we need to use longer, re-use and prevent waste

The circular economy is not so much about recycling, but keeping products and materials in high value circulation for as long as possible. For IT products, this means extending product lifetimes and recirculating all materials without producing any waste.

Longer product use is the best way to lower environmental impact. Recycling, while also part of a circular approach, should be of lower priority,  since most materials lose value every time they are recycled. Recycling also requires natural resources, such as energy. In a circular economy, products are built to last. They are durable and can be upgraded and repaired. Parts, such as batteries, can be replaced. Today, too many functioning electronic devices are discarded just because of worn-out batteries.

Of course, computers and other electronics are complex devices, so transitioning to a circular model will take time. Important decisions like material choice, product life and repairability will be made in the design phase. Customer needs and priorities are also important factors for the IT brands, so it’s important that users and institutional buyers make clear their desire for more sustainable, circular product options.

Here’s what you can do

To extend the usable life of IT products today, and contribute to a more circular future, here are six steps you can take

  • Buy used, refurbished or remanufactured IT. Both consumers and organizations can source good quality computers and other devices through refurbishers or remanufacturing organizations specialized in IT.
  • Consider if it is possible to repair or sell your current product. By erasing old data, refurbishing and upgrading it, you can give it a longer life.
  • If you must buy a new product, choose one that is certified according to a sustainability certification compliant with ISO 14024. Criteria must then be comprehensive, up to date and include both environmental and supply chain sustainability, covering the product’s full life cycle. Compliance with the criteria must be verified by an independent part.
  • Purchase a high-performance product. It enables you to keep it for a longer period of time.
  • Electronics contain valuable resources and shouldn’t be treated as non-recyclable waste. If it’s not possible to reuse or sell your old products, instead of leaving it to be forgotten in a drawer, hand them in to a recycling facility or another collection point where the materials are taken care of. Many retailers and IT brands accept that you leave your old products with them for recycling.

So here it is, as a consumer the most impactful thing you can do to your electronic products is keeping them in the system for longer. Wait another year or two before buying a new mobile phone (do you really need a new one or are you just tempted to get the latest model?). Take on these six circular steps as a challenge and put yourself in the driving seat. Be the market driver for more sustainable products.