New vs. Refurbished: The Environmental Impact of the Tech Industry.

The production and end-of-life disposal of our smartphones, computers and other modern tech have a dramatic impact on the environment, which can often be overlooked when compared to other environmental issues. Half of the carbon emissions from the digital sector (making up 4% of global emissions) come from the production of devices like these, and buying them refurbished, while not a perfect solution, can help to significantly limit their environmental impact. We’d like to tell you a little more about that.

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Rare earths, gold mines, plastic… the manufacturing of tech products and its environmental impact.

Computer and smartphone factories are huge guzzlers of gold, silver and many types of metals and rare earths. The extraction of these minerals, which are essential for the production of the components of our devices, has a sizable impact on the environment and ecosystems, not to mention the often-horrendous human conditions in which mines are operated.

The Bayan’obo deposit in Mongolia provides (since 2005) 45% of the world’s rare minerals. (photo credit)

On average, 130 grams of minerals and rare metals go directly into a smartphone. However, the overall damage and impact is far broader - an average of 44 kg of rock has to be extracted and destroyed to obtain these materials. In the end, the manufacture of a computer actually ends up using an average of almost 200 kg of raw materials.

The exploitation of the mines from which the materials are extracted also has a particularly disastrous impact on water resources. Gold production, for example, releases cyanide and mercury, which end up in rivers. Plus, in order to produce one ton of neodymium (the rare material that makes our phones vibrate), 75,000 litres of water are contaminated with toxic substances. 

 

The consequences of the production of these objects on freshwater reserves don't stop there either unfortunately. It takes on average 1,000 litres of fresh water to produce a smartphone and 1,500 litres to produce a computer. These are not negligible quantities in the context of increasing water stress in many parts of the world.

 

Last, but certainly not least damaging, plastics. Derived from fossil fuels – plastics are an important component of electronics and household appliances, with well-known environmental consequences. The average smartphone is made up of around 40% plastic, often mixed with other chemicals that make them only partially recyclable. 

Electronic waste: a growing problem, aggravated by planned obsolescence.

Producing a computer or a telephone—from the manufacture of its components to the time it leaves the factory - has a huge impact on the environment. But the end-of-life disposal of these devices also poses a major problem. 

 

We hear more and more about the issue of waste electrical and electronic equipment, and the difficulty of collecting and recycling it. With good reason too! With more than 50 million tonnes produced in 2019 (representing more than 6 tonnes of e-waste produced per hour), our old tech equipment is a major source of waste worldwide. This trend is also unfortunately exponential: meaning we should reach 74 million tons in 2030. 

 

Only 17.4% of this waste is properly collected and recycled, the rest is burnt or dumped in landfills. 

 

Many countries dispose of this waste, loaded with toxic substances (arsenic, mercury, cadmium, etc.), by sending it to West Africa or Asia, where illegal landfills are multiplying. There, workers put their lives at risk by dismantling and burning these devices without protection in order to recover the materials, for a price lower than the cost of mining them. These landfills have disastrous consequences for both human and environmental health.


 

The Agbogbloshie landfill in Ghana is one of the main “uncontrolled” electronics dumpsites.  Photo Credit.

The saddest part is that much of this waste could be avoided. In the US the average person changes their smartphone about every 2 and a half years, while 77% of the devices are still working. These consumption habits are due to two phenomena: planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. 

 

  • Planned obsolescence affects the proper function of objects after a given period of use and makes them, for example, incompatible with the updated functionalities or unusable due to the wear and tear of certain components that are designed so they cannot be replaced.


  • Perceived obsolescence is the relative loss of value of an object, either because it has gone out of fashion or because a more recent version is released on the market. 

 

Both types of obsolescence, real or perceived, lead consumers to buy new products and dispose of their appliances even though they are still functional or would only need basic repairs.

 

Refurbishing as an alternative to the overproduction of appliances and waste.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to reduce the environmental impact of our phones and computers. Obsolescence is not inevitable!

 

The first thing to do is to avoid buying anything at all when you can keep your existing devices. And when a purchase is necessary,  opt for a second-hand or refurbished device instead of buying new.

 

Buying a refurbished computer or smartphone means avoiding both the environmental footprint of its production and its destruction.

 

Of course, the refurbishing industry itself still has an impact on the environment: there is the transport to the refurbisher and sometimes, the need to replace certain parts (a battery or a screen for example). That being said, this impact is, on average, 3 times less than that of the production of a new device. 

Open heart surgery: One of Back Market’s partner refurbishers inspects and repairs an iPhone 7.

Taking a smartphone to demonstrate this, here’s the difference between the impact of a new and a refurbished phone:

 

                New smartphone impact  Refurbished smartphone impact  Damage avoided 

CO2 emitted  

56 kg

11 kg 45 kg saved on average
Raw materials used 44 kg 4-10 kg 34-40 kg saved

 

By buying refurbished electronics, in 2019 alone, Back Market customers have prevented:

  • the emission of 47,088 tons of CO
  • the extraction of 352,586 tons of raw materials

In addition, purchasing a refurbished device is an effective way to combat the overproduction of e-waste, which is very poorly managed downstream. In 2019, nearly 450 tons of e-waste were prevented through our platform.

 

Choosing a refurbished device is an easy and effective way of reducing the environmental footprint of our electronics. And to further reduce the impact of your device on the environment, you should of course make sure you keep it for as long as possible!

A few helpful tips to ensure your electronic device lasts as long as possible.

1. Protect your phone or computer with a case. This may seem obvious, but the shell absorbs any shocks that our devices may suffer, cutting down on the chance of your device shuffling off too early. For smartphones, you can also add a protective screen.

 

2. Avoid exposing your phone or computer to extreme temperatures. Cold temperatures prevent the battery from powering the device properly and hot temperatures increase the risk of the system crashing.

 

3. Save the battery! For smartphones, it's better to use a small charge during the day rather than a long charge at night and avoid letting your phone shut down due to a lack of battery power. The battery should be kept between 20% and 80% charged. For computers, it's different. The best thing to do is to use your computer connected to the mains when possible, this saves the battery. Ideally, the battery should be drained completely at least once a month to preserve it.

 

4. Repair your device. By calling in a repair... or even doing it yourself! The collaborative website ifixit.com campaigns for the right to repair and offers detailed tutorials and repair kits for all types of phones. On the site you can also find a comparison between several models of smartphones, tablets and laptops according to their repairability.

 

5. Choose an eco-designed device. Fairphone has developed a phone in which all parts are removable and therefore replaceable, which can greatly extend the life of the phone by making repairs easier. In terms of footprint, Fairphone is committed to using fair trade gold and recycled plastic in its phones.

Micheline
By Micheline Vaute, US Brand Manager

Uses tech occasionally. Likes the planet and people. Smells like teen spirit.

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