Frequent replacement of notebooks harms the climate and the environment

Is it worth replacing an old notebook which still functions with a new, more energy-efficient model? Do energy savings in the use of a new notebook outweigh the environmental impacts of its production? No is the answer provided by Oeko-Institut and Fraunhofer IZM in a study commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment. The results of this study show 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. If the new laptop is, for example, approx. ten per cent more energy-efficient than the old one, the energy savings only outweigh the environmental impacts of production after several decades.

“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 after 13 years under the consideration of environmental concerns,” says Siddharth Prakash, project leader and an expert on environmentally-friendly IT and telecommunications products at Oeko-Institut. “Therefore consumers should use their laptops for as long as possible and subsequently pass them on to friends or acquaintances for further use.”

Production of notebooks induces high environmental impacts

Oeko-Institut has calculated that the production phase, with about 56% of the total greenhouse gas emissions of a notebook, casts a significantly higher impact than the use phase. If the life-time of a notebook is assumed to be 5 years, 214 kilograms of CO2equivalents arise from its production and 138 kilograms or 36 per cent from use.

The portable computers also contain a number of scarce raw materials, the primary extraction of which entails substantial environmental and social impacts in some cases. Cobalt, for instance, is largely mined today in the Democratic Republic of Congo under dangerous conditions, without sufficient worker safety, and partly by children.

“Even in a modern technology-based country like Germany these raw materials are largely irretrievably lost for the industrial cycle because of existing inefficiencies in the recycling infrastructure, particularly as regards collection and pre-treatment,” says Siddharth Prakash. “From the perspective of Oeko-Institut, it is therefore important to reduce the environmental impacts of notebook production on the one hand and to ensure during product design that the devices are recycling- and repair-friendly on the other hand. That has to be the key element of a sustainable product policy.”

Need to expand the focus of the EU Eco-design Directive

The product design for devices of information and telecommunications technologies and consumer electronics should focus above all on product life extension and a recycling-friendly design. However, up to now EU eco-design policy has only concentrated on increasing the energy efficiency of such devices and reducing energy consumption in the use phase.

“For notebooks that only makes limited sense since they are already designed to be highly energy-efficient today,” adds Prakash. “Users place value on long battery life for the mobile use of notebooks. As a result it’s more important to take measures which extend the lifetime of these devices overall and enable a more efficient recovery of raw materials.”

Such measures include, for example, the possibility of upgrading and retrofitting notebooks. Furthermore standardised spare parts have to be made more readily available and the minimum warranty periods should be extended. Last but not least the notebooks should be designed in such a way that several components like the motherboard, display, batteries and additional wiring boards can be dismantled without great effort. Then they could be recycled and the resources contained therein can be recovered.

The study “Timely replacement of a notebook under consideration of environmental aspects” [available in German and Englisch] conducted by Oeko-Institut and Fraunhofer IZM can be found here

The study “Timely replacement of a notebook under consideration of environmental aspects” can also be found on Umweltbundesamt-Website

Contact at Oeko-Institut

Siddharth Prakash
Researcher in the Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division
Oeko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology), Freiburg head office
Phone: +49 761 45295-244

Oeko-Institut is a leading independent European research and consultancy institute working for a sustainable future. Founded in 1977, the institute develops principles and strategies for ways in which the vision of sustainable development can be realised globally, nationally and locally. It has offices in three cities in Germany: Freiburg, Darmstadt and Berlin.

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