Using products for longer helps protect the environment

Using products for longer helps protect the environment
16 Jul 2020

To help protect the environment, it is vital that we all use fewer resources. The best way to achieve this is by using existing products for longer. And not just IT equipment, but all the goods we use in our daily lives, such as furniture, bicycles, bags and suitcases.

A new background paper from the German Federal Environmental Agency offers strategies for implementing this. The paper highlights all the aspects associated with product use and preparation. Many of these aspects concern measures which can be influenced by legislators, but consumers and enterprises are also asked to do their part.

Potential for protecting the environment

Due to a lack of data, we do not know how many products are discarded each year – products which still worked, or which could have been repaired without much effort. Although many of these products end up being recycled, this still consumes resources. In addition, many substances can no longer be returned to their original level of quality, and therefore become lower-value raw materials after recycling. If the products are sent to energy recovery (i.e. are burnt) or waste disposal, the raw materials are lost entirely.

Using products for longer is of particular benefit to the environment if the longer use means avoiding the production of new products. Avoiding manufacturing new products saves the most raw materials. Rebound effects, for example, by using a refurbished item as additional equipment, nullify any gains for the environment.

If the entire product life-cycle is considered, buying new equipment only rarely conserves resources.

A common argument for making a new purchase is that the operation of new equipment and products requires fewer resources. This argument is made especially often for electrical equipment, but also for vehicles or heating systems. Although this may well be correct for many devices in terms of operation, we have to focus on protecting the environment – and that means the disposal of the old equipment and the manufacture of the new equipment must also be taken into consideration. Once production and disposal are included in the calculation, it is using the product for longer which most benefits the environment, rather than buying something new.

Provision of used goods is still a problem

For many people, it is not just the environmental aspects which are important, but the performance of the equipment too. This means many devices are replaced before they really need to be disposed of. However, other people might still be able to benefit from this equipment, as they do not require perfect products or such a high level of performance. But there are often problems in the transition from new to second-hand, which are partially structural, but also legal in nature. Awareness of the issue is also still lacking in many places.

First of all, the goods and devices concerned need to be evaluated to see if they are really waste or if they are perhaps products which could be refurbished. This differentiation must be made at the collection point. In the case of IT equipment, companies can often get support from remarketing businesses such as Green IT Solution, who can answer all questions about second-hand IT products and are able to provide extensive advice.

Reuse mostly fails due to a lack of awareness that many devices can be refurbished for a second life. To do this, it is particularly important to send technical equipment such as PCs and mobile phones to a refurbishment facility as soon as possible, because otherwise the equipment will become too old to make their reuse worthwhile. Very often, a lot of potential is wasted – not just for the environment but in monetary terms as well. Companies can earn money by passing on their used hardware quickly, and use it to cover part of their costs for new equipment.

Other reasons for a lack of second-hand use of products is that destroying products is often cheaper than donating them. This is a particular problem for distance selling. But even delivery to collection points at waste recycling companies is often a problem, because they do not take sufficient care when handling the products or make sure the products are protected from the effects of the weather. This means that many products which would have been suitable for refurbishment are irreparably damaged.

Especially for enterprises, disposing of used goods is associated with legal insecurities. In the case of IT equipment, many companies are not clear on how to ensure secure deletion of sensitive data. Equally often, companies worry that they must provide a guarantee. Here, too, an expert partner such as Green IT Solution can provide advice and support.

Framework conditions for refurbishment must be improved

In addition to the problem of collecting used products, there are also problems during refurbishment. Missing or expensive spare parts, as well as high hourly rates for technicians in Germany mean that many repairs and efforts to refurbish products are doomed to failure. Here there is a need for legislation to force manufacturers to make spare parts and documentation available. Software updates for IT equipment must also be provided for significantly longer than is the case for many end-user devices today. Support via a reduced VAT rate would also be a good way to intervene.

Interestingly enough, there is one product group where refurbishment and reuse after the initial new ownership phase – and the provision of spare parts – is never questioned. Vehicles. These are repaired as a matter of course and resold for further use. This self-evident fact means that specialised structures have developed to support this system. We need to transfer this self-evident approach to other product groups by changing how we think about them – and strengthen the structures in place for those product groups.

Refurbishment of IT hardware is very promising

In the IT hardware sector, this reorientation is already taking place – also because innovation cycles have become significantly longer. Nowadays, a three-year-old PC can be refurbished for another user without problems and then be used by schools or clubs, for example. We would be happy to advise you on how refurbishing IT equipment could provide added value for the environment and, at the same time, offer economic advantages for your company.

Katharina Hupe