Issue: December 2014, GREEN IT! – Information, communications and climate action

In Focus

Long live my lifestyle product!

Strategies for more sustainable electronic devices

Question: What produces almost the same quantity of carbon emissions as aviation? Answer: information and communication technologies (ICT). It’s clear, then, that we need more environmental and social sustainability in ICT – and that applies all along the value chain from production to disposal and recycling. As for the devices themselves, a longer product lifespan and service life can help to improve their environmental performance and carbon footprint and mitigate negative social impacts. So how can our TVs, notebooks etc. become more sustainable? Studies by the Oeko-Institut show how.

The energy efficiency of ICT products has steadily improved. In the last eight years, the average power consumption of a flatscreen TV, for example, has fallen by around 60 per cent. But the positive effects of these efficiency gains are quickly cancelled out: falling prices, rising sales figures, greater product diversity, short innovation cycles and consumer demand for ever more attractive lifestyle products are increasingly impacting on the environment. ICT-related electricity consumption – which means ICT products, data centres and telecommunication networks – in the EU-27 amounted to 214 TWh, or 7.7 per cent of total electricity consumption, in 2011 (see “Unregulated growth” on p. 12). As well as the energy consumed and greenhouse gases emitted during the use phase, there is the manufacturing side to consider: “ICT products are mainly produced in Asia and involve a high energy consumption and high environmental impacts,” says Siddharth Prakash, a senior researcher at the Oeko-Institut. In addition, many of the resources needed as inputs in ICT products are mined under dangerous conditions with no regard for social and environmental standards. “What’s more, extreme environmental burdens and adverse impacts on human health are caused in the disposal and incorrect recycling of these products, above all in developing and newly industrialising countries where recycling technologies and infrastructure are still in their infancy,” Siddharth Prakash explains. This causes significant and permanent loss of raw materials. But even a modern technology-based economy such as Germany’s is not immune to resource losses. “Even in this country, there is often a lack of adequate collection systems and pre-treatment facilities for product recycling,” he says. The problem is exacerbated by obsolescence – in other words, a shortened product lifespan.

Countering obsolescence

Many lifestyle products such as smartphones, notebooks and digital cameras are being replaced at ever shorter intervals. Many devices are disposed of even if they are still in good working order, simply because the consumer can’t resist the temptation to buy the latest model. “The resulting waste has risen sharply in recent years,” says Siddharth Prakash. “In addition, the primary production of resources, including rare metals, is increasing to enable the new equipment to be manufactured.” Oeko-Institut experts are currently investigating obsolescence in a study commissioned by the German Federal Environment Agency. In cooperation with the University of Bonn, they are studying the influence of obsolescence on the environment and resource consumption and are analysing the policy and technical options for extending the lifespan of these products. “We’re working with examples from specific product groups – TVs, notebooks and washing machines – and are mapping the average lifespan and service life of these appliances over a period of several years. Based on this information, we then pinpoint the causes of obsolescence,” explains Siddharth Prakash. The experts are identifying characteristics which cause technical deterioration or reduce the product’s lifespan or service life, and are devising ways of overcoming them. They are also documenting the obstacles that stand in the way of potential solutions. On this basis, the researchers aim to develop criteria for manufacturers and products in order to extend the product lifespan and are making appropriate recommendations to policy-makers and consumers.

Prakash explains one of the study’s interim findings: “For flatscreen TVs, the study reveals a fluctuating trend as regards first-use duration,” he says. “In 2005 – the first year of the survey – it averaged 3.2 years. In 2007, it increased to 5.7 years but fell back to 4.4 years in 2010, before rising to 5.6 years by 2012.” For new flatscreens, the average duration of first use was therefore substantially lower than for cathode ray tube TVs replaced during the same period. Many flatscreen TVs are replaced simply because consumers want to upgrade to a better product: more than 60 per cent of functioning flatscreens were replaced for this reason in 2012, and only 25 per cent of purchases were made to replace a faulty product.

It’s a similar scenario with notebooks. “Here, more than 25 per cent of replacements were purchased because the consumer’s existing product was faulty,“ says Siddharth, “and we’ve seen a substantial increase in this figure over recent years.” The main reasons, he says, are thermal problems, mechanical deterioration, and user carelessness. “Here, conversely, the desire to upgrade to a better product is on the decline,” Siddharth explains. Between 2004 and 2007, the average duration of first use for notebooks initially increased slightly from 5.4 years (2004) to 6 years (2005/2006) before falling marginally to 5.7 years in 2007. In 2012, it stood at 5.1 years.

Extending lifespans

In their study of obsolescence, the experts are already making one key recommendation: the lifespan and service lifetime of products must be extended. The benefits of this approach are revealed in a joint study produced by the Oeko-Institut and the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (Fraunhofer IZM) on behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency. The researchers investigated when is the optimum time to replace an old notebook which still functions with a new, more energy-efficient model. “The study clearly shows that the environmental impacts of notebook production are so high that they cannot be compensated in realistic time periods by energy efficiency gains in the use phase,” says Siddharth Prakash. Even assuming an unrealistic energy efficiency increase between two generations of notebooks of 70 per cent, the replacement of an old model with a new and more energy-efficient one is only justified from an environmental perspective after 13 years. And if the new device is around 10 per cent more energy-efficient than the old one, the energy savings outweigh the environmental impacts of production only after several decades.

In the researchers’ view, it is vital to reduce the environmental impacts of notebook production and for product design to focus to a greater extent on product longevity and on ensuring that the products can be repaired and recycled. This is because notebooks also contain a number of scarce raw materials which are rarely recycled. “It should be possible to upgrade and retrofit notebooks, repair them at reasonable cost, and make standardised spare parts more readily available over a period of several years,” says Siddharth Prakash. “And in terms of recyclability, it is important to ensure that individual components, such as batteries containing cobalt, can be removed easily without using tools.”

Software is another challenge, as this can reduce a product’s use phase. “Often, devices are replaced because they don’t support a particular operating system or application, not because they are faulty,” explains Siddharth Prakash. “This applies not only to products such as notebooks and printers, but also, and increasingly, to TVs.” The Oeko-Institut’s researchers are currently looking at how software solutions can help to extend products’ service life.

Until very recently, European ecodesign policy focused primarily on energy efficiency. However, initial steps towards more transparency, minimum environmental standards and longer product lifespans have now been taken in the Ecodesign Directive. “From 1 July 2014, manufacturers of notebook computers must provide information, in the technical documentation, about the minimum number of loading cycles that the batteries can withstand and make this information publicly available on free-access websites,” says Siddharth Prakash. Manufacturers must also provide information about battery replacement on their websites, on the external packaging, and in the technical documentation. “This was the first small step. Now, others must follow for other product groups as well, and must include additional obligations for manufacturers and the development of standardised processes to measure product lifespan.”

Assessing sustainability

But it is not only the manufacturers’ information which guides consumers towards environmentally friendly products: so do consumer platforms such as EcoTopTen and Blue Angel. The EU Ecolabel also helps consumers identify recommended products and services that have a reduced environmental and climate impact, including computers, notebooks and TVs. The Oeko-Institut researchers have been assisting the European Commission to refine the existing criteria for the EU Ecolabel. “We have already put forward a list of criteria for computers and TVs. For the first time, they include social standards, such as working conditions in production and mining of conflict-free raw materials,” says Siddharth Prakash. The researchers have also proposed measures aimed at product longevity.

In a further study, commissioned by Deutsche Telekom AG, the Oeko-Institut has identified ways of making ICT products more sustainable. It created a comprehensive sustainability matrix, whose criteria include product factors such as climate-friendly design and life-cycle costs and company-specific criteria such as the vehicle fleet. “The matrix enables products and services to be assessed and conclusions to be drawn for product development and procurement, for example,” says Siddharth Prakash. “In this way, a great deal can be achieved along the entire value chain.”

More environmental and social sustainability in information and communication technologies is essential. Policy-makers have a role to play here – for example, by broadening the scope of the Ecodesign Directive to include additional criteria such as longevity and material efficiency. There’s a role, too, for the industry itself, which should be supplying long-lived products, for example. And not least, consumers must play their part, by using their notebooks and smartphones, etc. for as long as possible before replacing them. “Action by all groups within society is crucial,” Siddharth Prakash emphasises, “especially in view of the continued growth that we expect for the ICT industry over the next few years.” And that’s something else that ICT has in common with aviation. Christiane Weihe

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