Why it’s time for the tech industry to stand up and be counted on sustainability

Games consoles, tablets and new models of mobile phones were likely to be just some of the items topping Christmas wish lists last year as consumer obsession with the latest gadgets continues. But what impact is this obsession with the newest models of these devices having on our planet?

It’s estimated that the average person upgrades their mobile phone about every two and half years, while businesses typically upgrade IT hardware every three to five years. That equates to an awful lot of redundant IT hardware in a relatively short space of time. The events of the past twelve months have done little to help from an electronic waste perspective either as we’ve seen sales of laptops and tablets soar exponentially to enable remote working.

However, it was a different story for desktops with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) across Western Europe seeing demand fall significantly. Distributors of these systems are concerned about stock levels – there are literally thousands of desktops in the channel inventory that no-one seems to want. Our own data supports this with desktop sales for 2020 down by 50 percent. If businesses and public sector organizations are replacing their desktops with mobile devices, it suggests that as many as 50 percent of desktop computers could be redundant in the UK.

The global e-waste challenge

But what happens to these ageing, broken or redundant devices when they’re no longer fit for purpose? Research we recently conducted suggests that responsible recycling isn’t always the obvious solution for some as nearly half of UK office workers admitted they don’t know if their workplace recycles their old electronic devices and almost 60 percent admitted they don’t recycle the electronics they use at home.

E-waste is one of the world’s fastest-growing waste streams and contains toxic substances that can cause harm not only to the environment, but to human health too. It can end up in landfill, incinerated, or even be shipped abroad. Last year alone, 53.6 million metric tons (the equivalent of 350 cruise ships) of e-waste was generated globally, while in the UK each person is responsible for generating 23.9kg of e-waste, the second highest per capita in the world.

We all have our own role to play when it comes to the responsible recycling or destruction of our own devices and clearly more needs to be done to combat the e-waste problem. Recently an investigation by the Environmental Audit Committee discovered that the UK lags behind other countries when it comes to managing electronic waste and does not collect and treat it effectively. The report has called for the ‘right to repair’ to be made law; for tech firms to be forced to collect their products and pay for them to be recycled; and also, for long-term targets to be set to reduce consumption and capture vital raw materials, including precious metals such as gold and silver and other raw materials like tungsten and indium.

MPs also claimed global tech manufacturers should be held accountable and do more to collect, recycle and repair the tech devices they sell. These firms responded to the allegations, claiming that the report didn’t reflect the measures they have in place to recycle old tech. However, the truth is, are any tech manufacturers and resellers truly doing enough to contribute to the circular economy?

The tech industry frequently champions the sustainability message, but unfortunately it isn’t doing enough to support these claims with real action. It’s time the IT industry stepped up to the challenge and did more to make it easier for their customers to return their old, broken, or redundant items to them. All too often we see tech companies send these items to a specialist partner for disposal and have little or no knowledge if these items are being recycled responsibly or shipped to landfill.

Actions speak louder than words

To enact real change, we want to see manufacturers and resellers say to their customers ‘anything we sell to you we will still take back.’ Returning items to where they came from is a growing trend in retail for clothes and cosmetics, so why not IT? The responsibility should be firmly on the reseller and if they want to make sustainability claims they must invest in their own onsite recycling facilities. They need to make it easy for their customers to return their items, invest in the equipment and expertise to refurbish or recycle unwanted items, and make sure they have stringent security accreditations in place to securely remove data from old devices. It takes a lot of hard work and investment to do this, but it’s the responsible thing to do and it’s time the reseller community put their money where their mouth is.

We recently conducted research with over 250 senior decision makers with responsibility for green initiatives in both private and public sector organizations and sustainability remains a clear priority, despite plans being derailed due to the pandemic. It also revealed that organizations are keen to do more to combat e-waste as improved management of ageing IT was highlighted as priority for over a third. 

The research shows that only a fifth of organizations still send their unwanted IT hardware to landfill with two in five organizations donating old IT hardware to charities or schools, and a third sending their redundant devices to an IT Asset Disposal (ITAD) facility. However, 23 percent of organizations keep their old devices on site due to concerns over company data falling into the wrong hands.

The research also revealed that an increasing number of organizations are purchasing refurbished IT hardware because, in addition to its green benefits, it is more cost effective too. A quarter of organizations claim to buy refurbished IT where possible; 42 percent purchase a mixture of refurbished and new equipment, while only a third of still insist on buying new models.  

While it’s good to see organizations thinking about a more sustainable approach to IT hardware purchasing and disposal, it’s time for the tech firms who manufacturer and sell it to stand up and take responsibility for their role in the world’s e-waste problem.

Tim Westbrook, Board Member, Stone Group

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