Don’t Recycle your old computers. Reuse them!
Re-use is 20 times better for the environment than recyling,
according to research from the UN.
Extending the productive life of our PCs by upgrading and donating older computers for re-use is the single most effective thing that each of us can do to reduce the environmental impact of our own computing.
The effective life a PC can be doubled by re-use organisations. After three or four years on a corporate desktop, professional refurbishing will prepare a computer to last another three or four productive years in a disadvantaged school or development organisation.
Empirical research from the UN University in Tokyo has proven that reusing an old computer is 20 times better for the environment than recycling.
Professors Eric Williams and Ruediger Kuehr examined the environmental cost of computing over the full product life-cycle: they studied the mining and materials production, component assembly, manufacturing process, global distribution, use phase, and eventual end-of-life disposal.
They discovered that one of the peculiar things about computers is that 80 per cent of the environmental damage incurred over the entire product life cycle has already happened before a PC is switched on for the very first time!
That’s the opposite of most equipment. For example, in the case of a refridgerator, 85 percent of the environmental cost occurs in the use-phase – drawing electricity. In this case, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, you must focus your attention on power-saving innovations and features.
But in the case of computers, if you focus only on power-saving during use, you can only ever possibly address 20 per cent of the problem.
This is why computer re-use is key from an environmental perspective. Given the high environmental cost of producing computers (ten times their weight in fossil fuels and literally tonnes of materials to produce a single PC) it is essential that we maximise the social use that we recover from them by extending their life as long as humanly possible.
If you recycle, in the sense of disassembling a computer down to its sub-assemblies, and then use them in re-manufacture, that re-manufacturing process will require additional power and transport costs.
If you recycle, in the sense that you recover the composite glass and metals for use in manufacturing brand new products, then you actually have to go even further back in the production process – requiring even more energy and more distribution costs.
By far the most environmentally efficient option is to keep the whole appliance intact and extend its life as much as possible. Reusing intact equipment is the most efficient way to recover the high environmental cost of the initial production of computers.
This very powerful argument for reuse is why the European WEEE Directive requires that we prioritise re-use over recycling.
Only when equipment reaches the genuine end of its productive life should it then be recycled.
…and don’t get me started on people who shred their hard drives!
What a Waste!
Ref: Computers & The Environment, Eric Williams and Ruediger Kuehr,