Are laptops more sustainable?

When offices closed down and people were restricted to a 2km radius, working from home became a fact of life for many workers in Ireland during the COVID-19 lockdown. Businesses had flirted with the concept before but the pandemic forced them to take part in a large-scale experiment on the effectiveness of remote working. The results were far less onerous than they had anticipated.

Organisations became dispersed and distributed entities overnight. Their prestigious, expensive, centralised offices were hollow shells, hyperbolic monuments to the pre-COVID age. Meetings and events were transposed from the physical to the virtual. Employees were able to recover all the wasted hours they had lost driving back and forth to work, trapped in traffic. The end of commuting and the effective closure of office space brought measurable environmental benefits to Ireland during lockdown.

The shift to home working demonstrated the advantages of using laptops which have been outselling PCs for some time, but the lockdown helped accelerate that trend. Rushabh Doshi, research director at Canalys, says the proportion of desktops sold to notebooks worldwide “has been fairly stable for the past few years at 3:7. However, we now see a shift towards notebooks with the proportion of desktops being 1:4 in Q2 2020.”

On the face of it, laptops appear to be much greener than desktop PCs. They have a lower carbon footprint and much reduced power usage. If you compare the Dell XPS 13 9360 laptop with the Dell Precision Tower 3420, the laptop’s carbon footprint is just over half of the desktop’s and its yearly energy demand is a third of the PC’s. That’s before you add in the energy costs of a monitor for the desktop PC.

The carbon footprint for a monitor is often equivalent to, or higher than, that for a desktop PC and the yearly energy usage can be double that of a laptop. There are many people sitting at their desks in front of a monitor or two, blissfully unaware their carbon footprint and power consumption is so much higher than a colleague using a laptop.

There are some caveats. Laptops have had a slightly shorter lifespan (3-4 years compared to 4-6 for desktops), are more prone to damage and harder to upgrade. But the gap in lifespan is narrowing. Dell gives the two computers mentioned above a product lifetime of 4 years each. Still, there are other issues. “I wouldn’t be sure on the argument for the use of laptops over desktops as an environmentally friendly option,” says Philip McMichael, CEO at IT asset disposal company, AMI. He points to “the more environmentally challenging materials used in batteries and laptop screens” and the shorter lifespan, which can negate the advantages of lower power consumption and a reduced carbon footprint.

Battery life is an issue. Laptop batteries need to be replaced after a certain amount of use and that’s a cost, but metal and materials such as steel, cobalt and lithium can be reclaimed from the old batteries. The move to make laptops thinner and save space on the internals has also led to some manufacturers gluing hard drives to motherboards, making it impossible to replace them in a cost effective manner. In some instances, companies have had to sanction the destruction of motherboards to fulfil their data protection obligations.

Those can be important considerations when you scrutinise the sustainability credentials of laptops in a circular economy where more and more attention is being focused on the reuse of products before they are recycled or dumped. But there are others. For example, in the reuse economy, laptops command a better price in their second life than desktop PCs. “Typically, laptops are higher in value than desktops with resale values very much linked to the sales price of a device,” says George Maybury, Public Sector & Northern Ireland Director for Dell Technologies Ireland. So even if laptops are changed more frequently – an assumption increasingly open to challenge – they have a greater value than desktops in the circular economy.

In addition, their size and integrated design make laptops easier to remove from offices, workplaces or homes and to replace. As with smartphones and tablets, their portability and smaller size makes them more convenient to trade-in or buy secondhand. People may be more psychologically comfortable with a market for refurbished laptops because it’s not radically different from the well-established trade for refurbished smartphones and tablets. Younger people are already familiar with refurbished smartphones and tablets, so buying pre-owned laptops is not a big leap for many of them. And as they tend to move around more, a laptop is far more convenient than a desktop.

The focus on reuse is important because of the sharp increase in the amount of e-waste being generated. When the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) published its Global E-Waste Monitor report in 2017, it predicted worldwide e-waste would reach 52.2 million metric tonnes by 2021. In its latest report, GESP revealed global e-waste had already hit 53.6 million metric tonnes in 2019. It is now forecast to reach 74 metric tonnes by 2030.

GESP found only 17.4 per cent of e-waste was formally collected and recycled in 2019, estimating “iron, copper, gold and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US $57 billion — a sum greater than the gross domestic product of most countries – were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse in 2019.”

It’s clear that one of the best ways to slow the upward trend identified by GESP is to reuse more technology. Laptops appear more suited to the reuse economy than desktops. With sales of new laptops already much higher than desktops, it would be fitting if they helped fulfil the twin aims of boosting the refurbished market for IT equipment and reducing the frequency of e-waste being generated (as well as the amount being unceremoniously dumped or burned).
This article was first published by IrishTechNews.