Green Alliance: Tech giants must embrace circular business models

An increased focus on recycling and repairing consumer electronics could cut the carbon footprint of each device by up to half, according to a new report from the Green Alliance.

The report – A circular economy for smart devices – reveals that the sector is getting more carbon-intensive over time; the carbon footprint of iPhones has quadrupled in the last five years. In total, the global mobile device industry generated more emissions than the whole of the UK’s transport sector in 2013.

But the new report details six ‘circular’ ways to cut these emissions, including more software upgrades, more uniform (modular) parts and a focus on re-use. Just keeping a smartphone in use for an additional year cuts its CO2 impact by 31%, the Green Alliance found.

Report author Dustin Benton said: “Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are spreading the benefits of internet access across the globe.

“But their production is increasingly carbon intensive, and rapid upgrades mean too many good devices end up abandoned in cupboards and desk drawers, before ending up as e-waste.

“If companies can make reuse easier, they can boost sales and cut environmental impact.”

How to extend the life of consumer electronics

1) Extend software upgrades

– Manufacturers currently have little incentive to support older operating systems with continual software updates, as they make money based on device sales not longevity.

– However, research firm Bernstein claims that smartphones with unsupported operating systems have “limited to no resale value,” and the report suggests longer software support could lead to reputational benefits as customers are more likely to buy long lasting items with higher resale value. 

2) Facilitate re-sale 

– Between 27% and 36% of US consumers said they keep an old phone because they “don’t know what to do with it.” Another 17% were just “too lazy” to get rid of them. In there UK alone there could be up to 125m smartphones lying around the house.

– One possible solution is for software companies to detect when a user upgrades to a new phone, find its value on a range of resale sites, dispatch a prepaid envelop, and automatically credit the user’s bank account.

3) Facilitate repair

– Second-hand devices requiring minor repair are worth repairing for three to five years after sale, even after logistical and refurbishment costs are taken into account

-The vast majority of repairs are for screens and batteries, so making these more modular and easier to repair would have a “huge impact” on repair rates.

4) Shift operating tasks to the cloud

– This means older hardware can be used, including second-hand devices.

– The main benefit of cloud offloading may be to lower cost, less established manufacturers, who could focus on durable, lower specification new and remanufactured devices rather than going into direct competition with manufacturers who are competing on high cost, high specification new devices.

5) Harvest parts

– This model would extend the ‘modularity’ envisaged in model three to include improved disassemblability and compatibility of other parts.

– This would enable the reuse of components when the device is otherwise not able to be repaired. It would also preserve high embodied carbon components, such as integrated circuits, which contribute 35% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint.

6) DIY repair

– In-home repairs have been discouraged by many tech manufacturers; Toshiba has refused to release its repair manuals, citing intellectual property rights and Apple has developed proprietary screws to prevent customers from opening their devices.

-As a result increased ‘reparability’ and information is easy to apply although not obviously beneficial for manufacturers

-But, the report aims to encourage manufacturer behaviour change, citing an iFixit where users say successful repair makes them more likely to buy another product from the same manufacturer.

Earlier today edie outlined five ways in which Apple was tackling sustainability, although none of them included the methods suggested by the Green Alliance.

Read the full report.

Brad Allen

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie