Reused IT delivers hefty CO2 emission reductions

In the ongoing efforts to establish a circular economy of reuse, recycle and reduce for IT equipment and devices, reuse can be overlooked. But the fact is reusing IT equipment is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions.

There’s an interesting figure in the 2019 Sustainability Report published by IT device lifecycle management company, 3StepIT, which puts the effectiveness of reuse into context. According to the company, reusing a laptop can result in a 36% reduction in CO2e.

3StepIT explains the calculation in the Appendix to the report as follows: “Two brand new products would have a combined footprint of 600 kg. A new and then refurbished product has a carbon footprint of 375kg, a saving of 225kg CO2e versus two separate product life cycles.” The company notes that the figure needs to be adjusted slightly because 98% of devices returned are resold (not 100%), reducing the potential saving from 225kg to 220kg.

That counts as a big win for the organisation reusing the laptop – and the environment. But it presupposes that the company which owns the laptop takes it back to reuse it again. That’s not always the case, So while it’s true that over the lifetime of the laptop the CO2e emitted will be 63% of the CO2e emitted by two new laptops, that figure only applies if the laptop stays within the company.

What happens if the company sends the laptop to be refurbished and reused but opts to replace it with a new one for its own business? Well, this is where it gets interesting because for the business or person buying the refurbished laptop, their CO2e saving is actually higher than if the laptop had remained with its original owner.

How does that work? Simple really. For the original owner of the laptop, the saving is judged against the CO2e from two new machines. Not so for someone buying it as a refurbished machine. For them, the CO2e reduction estimate is calculated compared to the 300kg for a new laptop. If the carbon footprint of the refurbished laptop is 75kg, that’s equivalent to a reduction of 75%. If you factor in an additional 5kg for the small number of devices that aren’t resold, the reduction is 73%.

So what's interesting here is that you can have two different figures for two different users: one for the original owner who sold it on to be refurbished and the other for the person/business who bought the laptop the second time around. The intriguing part of all this is who gets to claim credit for the reduction in emissions as part of this virtuous circle: the original owner or the second buyer?

Is there anything wrong with them both claiming it? After all, without the market for refurbished laptops, there would be no CO2e emission reduction associated with them because no one would be buying them. But without people shifting out their old laptops for refurbishment, there would be no products to satisfy demand in that market.

The 3StepIT report demonstrates that there has been some effort to promote the environmental benefit of the reuse of devices to businesses seeking to replace their equipment. But what about promoting it to the people buying equipment for reuse? Should there be more of an effort to highlight how ordinary people can significantly reduce carbon emissions if they buy refurbished IT equipment? With a younger generation increasingly keen to buy secondhand items such as smartphones and clothes on the grounds of sustainability, wouldn’t it make sense for businesses selling refurbished IT devices to highlight the environmental benefits of buying their products?