Don’t throw it away! Give your computer a second life
Ángeles Pereira, University of Santiago de Compostela
Do you know how many CO2 emissions you can save if your used computer were reused instead of directly sent to recycling? The Spanish company Revertia, a pioneer in the preparation of IT equipment for reuse, has calculated that a complete computer can save 191 kg of CO2eq emissions, which is equivalent to the emissions emitted by an average car after travelling 1,600 kilometres.
Globally, e-waste continues to grow at an annual rate of about 5 per cent globally and the problem is that in developing countries e-waste grows exponentially, and volumes could grow by as much 500 per cent over the next decade in some countries (Mccann & Wittmann, 2015). More than 3.5 million tons of waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) were reported by EU-28 countries as collected and recycled in 2015, which could represent approximately 65% of the total WEEE generated[i]. The total amount of collected WEEE varied considerably across EU-28 countries (1.6-14.7 kg per inhabitant) being the average around 6 kg/capita.
Other authors estimate that only 35% of all the WEEE ended up in the officially reported amounts of collection and recycling systems (Huisman et al., 2015). The remaining is either recycled under non-compliant conditions in Europe, removed of valuable parts, thrown in waste bins, or exported to developing countries, such as China, India, Ghana and Pakistan, due to low-cost labour and less restrictive environmental regulations. Although the Basel Convention banned in 1992 all forms of hazardous waste exports, illegal trade is still occurring from the EU countries (Huisman et al., 2015).
As this growing trend in the generation of e-waste continues, business models focused on the repair and remanufacturing of equipment will be decisive in achieving a more circular economy. These models allow extending the useful life of the products, slowing down the extraction and consumption of resources in the production of these products and, especially, slowing down the growth speed of the waste flow.
In the R2PI project we have analyzed the Revertia Reusing & Recycling case. Revertia sells its corporate clients value-added services in addition to the collection and management of their electronic waste, such as document management process, analysis and measurement of their carbon footprint, which they can incorporate into their corporate responsibility reports. Moreover, Revertia has agreements with a number of collective schemes, by which electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) manufacturers comply with the legal obligation of extended producer responsibility, which applies according to the WEEE Directive 2012/19/EU.
IT equipment, mainly laptops, computers and printers, which are suitable to be repaired or remanufactured are submitted to the industrial process and data erasure in Revertia’s facilities. Subsequently, the refurbished equipment can be sold in second-hand markets or donated. In this way, more people can have access to functional equipment at a very attractive price; without forgetting the environmental advantages. According to the 2017 outcomes, Revertia collected 280 tonnes of WEEE and was able to prepare for reuse a 34% of all the collected IT equipment. That means that Revertia avoided 347 tonnes of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. This amount equals the CO2 emitted by a car after driving 2.7 million kilometres.
The case of Revertia demonstrates that its business model is economically and environmentally viable. Social benefits can also be derived, in the form of increased employment possibilities in repair and remanufacturing. There are great possibilities to scale up and replicate this business model. However, there are also important barriers that need to be addressed. From the point of view of the broad context of the WEEE recycling and reuse sector, the regulatory and legal framework is the most relevant conditioning factor. By setting specific targets for reuse and recycling, the WEEE Directive 2012/19/EU and the Spanish RD 110/2015 create, in principle, an opportunity for the development of business models focused on reuse. Within this context, the establishment of collective Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes can be seen as an enabler because EEE producers are obliged to finance the end of life of products sold to the market. They therefore support the establishment of reuse and recycling businesses. However, the specific functioning of these schemes presents certain characteristics that end up becoming barriers for the reuse and recycling businesses: the lack of transparency regarding the products managed, the costs of reuse and recycling, the heavy bureaucratic burdens, different legislations within territories for the transfer of waste, etc. In addition, the EPR scheme leads EEE manufacturers to focus on the products end-of-life, rather than on developing new strategies aimed at designing EEE for durability, upgradability, reparability, etc.
With regard to the technological aspects, the rapid obsolescence and continuous developments in the EEE sector allow for a continuous e-waste stream, which ensures that inputs are obtained by companies specialized in repair, refurbish and remanufacture while carrying out preparation for reuse of electronic equipment. However, these same factors can become a threat, making the product suitable for reuse unable to find a demand in the outlet market –due to obsolescence even for the second-hand market. In relation to processes, the activity of preparation for reuse presents currently the disadvantage of being highly manual. Further development of technologies to sort and efficiently and effectively decide the destination of products is needed.
On the other hand, preparation for reuse is not a definitive solution. And in fact, the weaknesses of the model are related to the limited control that an organisation like Revertia has over the conception of the products. Therefore, because of not being a manufacturer, there is no possibility of affecting the design, durability, upgradability, reparability, and so on of EEE products. The lack of agreements with manufacturers of EEE products means that, organisations such as Revertia, carry out the activity independently, exploiting a gap, and they need to seek a second-hand market for the products that they recondition or remanufacture. But this does not guarantee that the product, at the end of its limited extended shelf life, will return to the source, and thus closing the loop. In the best of cases, the equipment will be disposed of and adequately treated by WEEE managers.
Therefore, repair, refurbish and remanufacture of IT equipment represent a good contribution to reduce and slow down e-waste flows. However, a Circular Economy will need a more strong effort on behalf of manufacturers, who should focus on better design, repairability, durability, etc. of EEE products, as well as on consumers, who should change their consumption patterns, focusing more on utility and having a good quality service rather than the latest fashion device.
[i] The WEEE Directive 2012/19/EU considers that “according to current estimates, a collection rate of 85 % of WEEE generated is broadly equivalent to a collection rate of 65 % of the average weight of EEE placed on the market in the three preceding years.”