Reuse instead of recycle!

Reuse instead of recycle!
17 Jun 2021

In decades gone by, the mantra used to be that waste must be recycled. But this is no longer true, because it has become plain to see that recycling is not enough to deal with our environmental problems. Instead, to handle raw materials sustainably, manufactured products need to be kept in service for as long as possible. Only a product which is not produced is not a burden on the environment. Can this approach also be a solution for more sustainability in the IT sector?

Why is recycling not ideal?

Although recycling is certainly a better option than simple waste disposal, it also requires raw materials. It uses a lot of energy – especially to separate, extract and process the materials in the recycled products. In addition, it is often impossible to reprocess materials like aluminium and some plastics back to their original purity and quality. This is known as “downcycling” – where the result of recycling is an inferior material.

There is also an increasing amount of publicity about how we are recycling much less than we thought. The level of recycling is very dependent on the raw material. In Germany, more than 90% of paper, cardboard and glass is recycled. But plastics have a much poorer recycling rate: most of it just ends up being incinerated. Reports about European plastic waste being sold to Asian countries and ending up lying on rubbish heaps instead of being recycled have also dampened enthusiasm for recycling.

We need a new approach for IT hardware

So we need a new approach. Part of the solution is not only to do without buying new products, but to keep existing products in use for as long as possible. This includes the resale of items which are no longer needed, and the purchase of used and refurbished goods.

Buying second-hand is already accepted and expected for some everyday objects. Disposing of them after just a few years would even be frowned upon by society. The best example of this is of course cars, which have a thriving second-hand market. One objective for improved sustainability is to establish a similar usage concept for other equipment, such as IT hardware. Using this for as long as possible is especially important – as is has an above-average carbon footprint and, due to the high number of different materials the hardware contains, recycling is complex or only possible to a limited extent. Currently, for example, it is almost impossible to re-extract all the rare earths used in IT equipment and to reuse them.

How can we stop IT hardware from ending up on the scrapheap after just a few years and to use it for as long as possible instead? Although 20 years ago using second-hand equipment was almost never considered – or only for infrastructure hardware such as switches and routers – a shift in thinking is currently underway.

For end devices such as PCs, laptops and smartphones, this is definitely owing to the ever-fewer visible technical advances which can be perceived by the user. Smartphones have reached a level which could be described as technical maturity. In recent years, new models have barely offered any leaps in performance or revolutionary new features. In the PC market too, the growth in computer performance is significantly less than it was 15 years ago. Although Moore’s Law (which states that transistor density doubles every two years) still applies, the average consumer barely notices these advances.

Prerequisites for using hardware for longer

An important factor for refurbishing IT products is the quality of the equipment. With smartphones, Apple has been ahead of the game for years. A new initiative could soon change this and extend the range of products offered on the refurbished market. The eco rating of the largest European mobile phone providers evaluate smartphones according to criteria such as longevity and repairability, which should be listed as additional information in the product data for the new devices. If customers accept the rating, it could encourage manufacturers to make smartphones which are easier to repair and which can be supplied with software updates for the long term. This would make the devices significantly more attractive on the refurbished market. Unfortunately the rating is not yet available for all manufacturers. For example, Apple has not yet joined the initiative.

But even people who don’t want to buy used hardware themselves can still be part of the solution. When buying new equipment, businesses especially – who rely on high-quality hardware and need to replace this at regular intervals – should consider reselling the equipment at a later date. This has two advantages for businesses: they can contribute to a more sustainable economic cycle and, at the same time, improve the cost-effectiveness of their IT infrastructure.

Improved sustainability is only achievable if new perspectives are taken on board. This includes taking a long-term view and testing new solutions. When it comes to your IT infrastructure, we at Green IT Solution are by your side. We would be happy to advise you on the use of refurbished hardware in your company, as well as on reselling your used hardware.

Katharina Hupe