Around 275 million notebook computers are produced and sold globally every year. Even though their manufacture requires a large amount of energy as well as a number of finite natural resources, their service life is often short. The typical IT contract is based on a three to four year use cycle. After that, many organizations face difficulties disposing of products, with many of them ending up as e-waste even though they are fully functioning. This way of handling IT products goes against the principles of the circular economy, where products should be kept in use for as long as possible, to save resources and retain value. The good news is the urge to implement more sustainable practices is growing. However, there are many choices to make during a notebook’s life cycle and it’s not always easy to know what’s best. We’ve looked into this issue to clarify what the most responsible way to manage notebook computers is. How can organizations reduce environmental impact and help promote a more circular life cycle?
Recycling — a less favorable solution in a circular economy
In theory, recycling may seem like a viable way to harvest precious metals and other materials from a notebook. But in reality, a very small amount of the assets included in our IT products are currently recovered in the recycling process. First of all, only around 20 percent of global e-waste actually reaches controlled recycling facilities. The rest may end up in landfill, is incinerated, or illegally exported to regions where e-waste legislation is weak or non-existent.
Even in those cases when a product reaches a controlled recycling facility, materials tend to lose value, or are lost altogether. There are several reasons for this. Notebooks contain a large number of materials and typically, recycling facilities cannot recover them all. Materials that are present in very small amounts are difficult and costly to extract. Rare earth metals and conflict minerals, such as tantalum, are often used in small quantities and are in many cases not recovered at all. Metals, such as gold, cobalt and palladium are only partially recovered during recycling and need to be extracted from the mines continuously to meet the demand. A material that often loses its value during the recycling process is plastic. The output is a downcycled, lower quality product. Plastics in notebooks may also contain harmful flame retardants and plasticizers that cause harmful health effects during recycling processes and make the materials unsuitable to use in new products.
Recycling methods are continually evolving, and in some leading-edge facilities, recycled materials are of higher quality, in some cases even similar to virgin materials. These higher end materials can be reused in the same type of product as they once came from, which meets one key aspect of realizing the circular economy. However, there are very few of these facilities, and bringing these solutions to scale will take time. For now, the focus must be on avoiding e-waste as much as possible.