Can we do Better than IT Recycling?

Techbuyer is a global provider of sustainable IT solutions, including responsible disposal of used technology devices that absolutely cannot be re-used or disassembled for spares. Because of this, we have often been mistaken as an ‘IT recycler,’ a phrase we have been trying to avoid for nearly two decades.  

Recycling is brilliant for some things; we urge you to recycle your plastic bottles, bean tins, cardboard boxes and lingering birthday cards. However, is recycling redundant IT hardware really the best we can do? For years, we have put recycling on a pedestal and hailed it as the answer to all our environment-related prayers. Is this way of thinking now outdated and maybe even dangerous? Read on to find out.  

The Current State of Play 

To properly analyse the effectiveness of IT recycling in 2022, we must first have a thorough understanding of the current scale of the electronic waste (e-waste) problem. In 2021 alone, we generated 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste globally, making it the fastest-growing domestic waste stream ever. This is equivalent to the weight of 350 full-sized cruise ships!  

It is estimated that just 20% of e-waste was formally recycled in 2019. The majority of the un-recycled e-waste ends up in landfill sites – usually in developing countries – where it is left to poison the soil and emit toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. This has a devastating effect on local communities and wildlife. The World Health Organisation (WHO), in their recent article “Children and digital dumpsites: e-waste exposure and child health” (pg. 8). states that “millions of young children and adolescents, as well as women of childbearing age, work in the growing e-waste dumps of Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in some developed economies of Europe and elsewhere, extracting precious metals such as gold from computer chips and copper from cables by burning the devices or using toxic chemical baths”.  

Recycling would of course be a better alternative to this. If all of this e-waste was sent to responsible IT recyclers, then millions of tonnes of this e-waste would be used in new products, and the health implications of e-waste would be significantly lessened. But would this be enough?  

The Shortfalls of Recycling 

With current IT recycling Technologies, we are unable to fully recover all the materials within a device for reuse, meaning that the majority of critical raw materials (CRMs) are still being wasted. With the current CRM shortages and the devastating effect that this is having on supply chains, it is paramount that we buy ourselves more time.  

It is important to also appreciate that, like most things, the electronics recycling process uses energy and therefore has an associated carbon cost. Recycled e-waste has to be transported to plants, and machines are required to offload and treat the electronics. On a scale of 57.4 million tonnes, it is easy to see how the associated carbon emissions can quickly skyrocket.  

Another major critique of IT recycling is that it marks the end of a product's lifespan. The materials within the device are usually extracted and turned into raw materials to be used in a completely new product. The process takes a blanket one-size-fits-all approach to IT disposal which often results in functional IT equipment becoming obsolete before it has reached its potential lifespan. This means that electronic devices still need to be manufactured to replace the ones no longer in use. Even though they are using recycled materials, the manufacturing process still incurs an eye-watering environmental cost - as much as 85% of a laptop’s carbon footprint is generated in the manufacturing process! Also, as soon as something is classified as ‘waste’ it cannot be re-sold. We must challenge the classification of functional IT equipment as waste when it still holds value in use. 

So, we argue that we can’t rely on recycling alone - as it currently stands - to solve the e-waste problem and reduce the impact of the tech industry on the environment. That would be like trying to cool your server estate with nothing more than a supermarket-bought, AAA-battery-powered, handheld fan; it’s just not going to cut it! 

According to Project Drawdown, a non-profit group that conducts reviews of climate solutions, recycling is in the bottom half of prioritised solutions to help rein in emissions. Recycling sits behind forest protection, efficient aviation, and even smart thermostats. Boris Johnson recently landed himself in hot water by telling a group of schoolchildren that recycling plastic “doesn’t work”. The delivery may have been poor, but he may have been on to something.  

He went on to state that recycling plastic was “not the answer” to threats to ocean ecosystems and that instead “we've all got to cut down our use of plastic.” Cutting down on plastic is unlikely to be enough on its own; however, this method buys us time to develop effective and fool-proof waste management systems. The same is true of IT equipment and technology. If we can reduce the sheer quantity of e-waste from ending up in landfill through extending the lifespan of devices, repairing where possible and refurbishing used devices, we can buy ourselves time until recycling methods, as well as other waste disposal processes, can catch up. At this stage, a circular economy that is robust and globally accepted can be adopted.  

What does the Future Hold? 

Whilst it’s true that recycling cannot save our planet from the rising tide of e-waste, this is not to say that it won’t one day be an integral part of a wider circular economy model that eliminates waste and supports a sustainable future.  

In its current form, recycling is not enough. But the same can be said about the majority of our emerging sustainability solutions. If we could completely power the world through wind power and nothing else, we probably would. But just as with recycling, most sustainability projects are not developed enough to solve our issues. We must buy ourselves time by using less and making the most of what we have until new technologies are developed. Technology manufacturers must also start to consider recycling in the design phase. Sustainable and circular design should include modular elements (which can be replaced for repair or disassembled at end of life) and include materials that can be effectively recycled.  

For technology, this is a novel idea. IT hardware is constantly updating and upgrading. The timespan between new technology releases is shrinking, and incessant upgrade cycles have us racing to get our hands on the latest devices. In theory, smartphones, for example, should last for five years, but, in the UK, the average phone upgrade cycle is around two years according to Business Wire. We are a society geared towards buying and throwing away. There are an estimated 53.58 million smartphone users in the UK; this means that in order to keep up with demand, smartphones and other devices are being manufactured at an unimaginable rate. According to the IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, there were a forecasted 1.38 billion smartphones shipped globally in 2021 and there are predicted to be 1.43 billion smartphones shipped in 2022. We are consistently cutting the life of our devices short to buy shiny, newly manufactured replacements.  

At Techbuyer, we advocate for and facilitate technology reuse, repair, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and repurposing. Why would you recycle a device and cut its life short when you could guarantee that its lifespan will be extended and 100% of its composition will be reused? 

People must ask themselves “Is it really the end of my device's lifespan, or is it just the end of its lifespan for me?” Different individuals have different demands of their technology. For example, your PC may no longer be useable in a fast-paced, mission-critical workplace environment, but it could be perfect as a learning resource for school children. Your mobile phone may have become too slow to meet your gaming and social media needs, but it could be ideal for a secondary user who just needs to make calls and texts.  

Even if your tech is nearing its functional demise, it can often be upgraded or repaired. Next time you notice that your laptop is slowing down, instead of going straight on the internet to search for a replacement, consider component-level upgrades or just remove some of the software and files stored on it. This can boost your device's performance and add years on to its useful life at a fraction of the monetary and environmental cost of buying a new one. These solutions make technology go further and reduce the need to manufacture new devices which helps to save finite critical raw materials.  

Although a change in consumer habits is important, a change in the practices and habits of major organisations is the key to creating a circular IT economy. That is why we are on a mission to deliver sustainable IT solutions that provide organisations with the optimal commercial outcome in the most sustainable way. We are dispelling the myth that in order to make sustainable choices, profit and performance must suffer. At the heart of our operation is a core goal to help businesses go further while using less and minimising their impact on the environment.  

We eagerly await the day when recycling technologies are advanced enough to recycle 100% of IT hardware and recover critical materials. However, we are not there yet, and we must buy ourselves time by reusing, repurposing, repairing our technology.  

Learn more about the alternatives to recycling and how you can utilise them.  

Becoming a Sustainable Business

Techbuyer is a global provider of sustainable IT solutions. It won Sustainable Organisation of the Year at the UK IT Industry Awards in 2021 and Circular Economy Organisation of the Year at the IEMA awards 2020.  

In episode two of our podcast series, created in collaboration with the Leader’s Council, our Sustainability Lead and Chartered Environmentalist, Astrid Wynne, talks about what it is to be a sustainable business.   

Listen to the full podcast below. Click here to learn more about our new podcast series. 

Read the full podcast transcript here.