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The environmental impact of our devices: revealing what many companies hide

A person with a dismantled laptop
This post was updated on Sept 7 2021 to include the video of our webinar on this topic.

Every device we buy comes with a hidden environmental cost. Understanding this hidden cost is crucial to learning just how green repair is, so we’ve been on a mission to reveal the true environmental impact of the products we buy.

We first investigated this issue back in 2014 and used the data we found to power the Fixometer – our tool that helps community repair groups estimate the environmental impact of repairs made at their events. A lot has changed in the last 7 years, so the time has come to update and expand this data.

The data that many companies refuse to share

After putting a call out to our community, a handful of brave volunteers came together to drive the investigation. Together, we scoured the internet for data that could tell us about the carbon impacts of the products we see at community repair events, such as laptops or toasters.

We soon found that the best sources for this information were lifecycle assessment (LCA) reports. Manufacturers, academics and consultancy firms use these reports to measure the environmental impacts of products. We were most interested in how much greenhouse gas is produced at each stage of a product’s life, measured as CO2 equivalent (CO2e).

Two LCA reports from Dell and HP

LCA reports for two models of laptop, one Dell and the other HP.

Finding these LCA reports isn’t easy. Many manufacturers simply don’t produce them. Some do, but only a small number actually make them available to the public. We found that:

  • Only a small number of tech companies share data for some types of IT products, such as laptops, desktops and monitors. (Most of these companies seemingly publish this data to get environmental accreditation, such as EPEAT ecolabels.)
  • For most household electrical/electronic devices, there is very little publicly available data about environmental impacts, especially during the manufacturing phase. Much of the data we did find came from academic journals.

We even asked some manufacturers to share this data – they didn’t help us. Most played dumb or ignored us completely.

As a result, we couldn’t find more than a few examples for nearly half of the product categories we explored.

A table displaying the availability of CO2e data for different product categories

Ultimately, almost every manufacturer we looked at talked proudly about corporate sustainability on their company website.

But we need companies to put their data where their mouth is, otherwise they are simply greenwashing.

What did we learn?

Despite these challenges, we analysed data on nearly 500 products across a wide range of product categories. And here’s the headline:

For most types of item we see at community repair events, most of the global warming impact occurred before it was used for the first time.

That’s because for many products, extracting raw materials and manufacturing are very carbon intensive processes. You can learn more about this with our interactive ‘Materials Matter’ activities.

Here’s how some of the common items we see at repair events stack up:

Product CategoryPre-use CO2e impact as percentage of total
Blender84%
Tablet81%
Mobile79%
Laptop77%
Clothing/textiles73%
Computer monitor55%
Desktop computer53%
Vacuum cleaner32%
Kettle16%
Toaster16%

But let’s dig a bit deeper. The most common devices we see at repair events are medium-sized laptops. So, we looked at 64 models of medium-sized laptop from Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Microsoft. We found that an average laptop of this size represents about 263 kg of embodied CO2e. That’s the equivalent of a flight from London to Rome and around 81% of the total CO2e each device produces over its entire life. For most of these laptops, the manufacturer assumed a lifespan of just 4 years.

Here’s how the hidden environmental cost of a laptop builds up over such a short lifespan:

A graph showing the CO2e impact of replacing a laptop every 4 years

The impact of replacing a device so often is clear. When products aren’t designed to last or be repaired, manufacturers’ emissions increase. So what can we do about it?

Reducing our consumption

As consumers, the main way we can reduce the hidden environmental cost of our devices is to keep using them for as long as possible. By extending the life of our gadgets and fixing them when they break, we can slow down the stream of newly manufactured devices.

Here’s what happens if we extend the life of a laptop by 50% or 100%:

Graphs showing the CO2e impact of replacing a laptop every 6 or 8 years

The longer we can use a device, the lower the CO2e impact will be over time.

We can’t do this alone, and we can’t rely on companies

But manufacturers keep making repair more and more difficult. So to reduce the hidden environmental cost of our devices, we also need to change the system that generates so much CO2e while producing short-lived, unrepairable products. We need manufacturers to clean up production and remove barriers to repair. And given we can’t rely on companies to do this voluntarily, we need a real Right to Repair.

If you’re in the UK, you can take action right now by signing our petition to the UK government. If you’re in Europe, you can sign up for updates from the European campaign.

Watch our webinar

We ran a webinar with Jessika Richter from The International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics in Lund in September 2021 where we explored this work in more detail. You can watch it below:

(Can’t see a video above? Click here to watch it on YouTube)

What now?

Next we’ll use what we’ve learned to update our Fixometer tool. The data we’ve found will help us improve the reliability and accuracy of future calculations, allowing community repair groups around the world to better understand their impact. We’ll also be able to add calculations for new categories of products, including non-electrical items for the first time.

We have published our data here under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0).

And in the meantime, we’ll continue to push for products to be made more repairable.

If you’d like to learn more about our work with data and the hidden environmental cost of our devices sign up for updates below:

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This was a team effort

We couldn’t have done this without our amazing team of volunteers. A huge thank you to Kiki, Mark, Mel, Monique, Steve & Stuart for all your help!

ACTION logo

We are hugely grateful to to The ACTION (Participatory science toolkit against pollution) project for funding this work and for their support.

 

EU flag - a ring of yellow stars on a blue background

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 824603.

This blog post reflects the author’s views. The European Commission is not liable for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

8 responses

  1. Tim Weedon

    As a refurbisher of IT we are keen to verify the CO2e of our processes, I particularly struggle with finding the GHG included in the components that we buy in, particularly replacement screens, chargers and RAM sticks along with SSDs I have burrowed down into batteries succesfully, but need help.

    1. James Pickstone

      Hi Tim,
      It’s great to hear you’ve been diving into the embodied emissions of replacement parts. While we didn’t look at these ourselves, the French environment agency ADEME released an interesting report in January this year examining the environmental impact of refurbished devices, which you can find here: https://librairie.ademe.fr/dechets-economie-circulaire/5241-evaluation-de-l-impact-environnemental-d-un-ensemble-de-produits-reconditionnes.html. I believe this contains some relevant data, but may also be of more general interest for your work.

      It’s also in French, but Back Market wrote up an English language summary, which you can see here: https://www.backmarket.com/en-us/c/news/impact-of-refurbished-on-environment

      Hope that helps!
      – James

  2. Hi, I am in France and seek for the same information, data on RAM production impact, on SSD’s, on CPU’s (I change them sometimes)… And can’t find any either. But at some point we might have to create a list of components we need for the refurbishement processes, and get some numbers, for LCA, greenhouse gas, rare metals, water…

    1. James Pickstone

      Hi Joyce, agreed! We did find a small number of studies looking at a limited selection of components, but struggled to find enough to be able to produce data for common computer repairs or component upgrades. That said, we did this research about three years ago now, so there may be more data available now.

  3. Hello James,

    while we can’t have all and every data as the refurbishing movement is only starting to gain speed now, any data we can put our hands on can be useful, even 3 or more years ago.

    Can you provide some? What were your findings?

    At the moment all I have found are rough figures…

    Here a few websites I visited: United Nations University, OpenLCA(.org), on the Science Direct website, “The chip manufacturing industry: Environmental impacts and eco-efficiency analysis”, I also looked at your link on Backmarket.

    I know about some of the publications from Ademe, all the ones I retrieved provide large figures only…

    And there is the dedicated non for profit GreenIT(.fr), articles in French, some in English, such as “Environmental footprint of the digital world”.

    I will be very thankful for any fine tuned data.

  4. Hello,
    @Tim Weedon,
    if you happen to come read here, I was finally informed by the French GreenIT.com main founder, that the Negaoctet.org website holds data, et can provide the following information on the ecological impact:
    RAM modules, CPUs, GPUs, SSDs, HDDs, cases, screens, power supplies and more… Allowing to put together back about any computing hardware.

    There are 4 levels: componants, equipment, else (type 1 m2 de datacenter or 1 FTTH subscriber), and digital services.

    What I don’t know, is how much it costs.

  5. keith brander

    I have worked as a volunteer, repairing clothing, for RC Denmark since it started over ten years ago. We use a calculator for CO2 savings that assumes that every repair results in a full “new” life for the item. With many items (especially clothing) this is an overestimate and they may even be repaired several times. Do you try to estimate or collect data on how long repaired items last and do you assume that each repair results in a full “new” life?

    1. James Pickstone

      Hi Keith, thanks for your comment. We don’t have as much data as we’d like on how long products last after being repaired. But we estimate that each sucessful repair extends the life of an item by 50%. For us, this feels more realistic than assuming every repair will result in a full “new” life for the item.

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