Can the pandemic help us to embrace refurbished electronics? | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 15.06.2020
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Environment

Can the pandemic help us to embrace refurbished electronics?

As the pandemic has impacted supply chains, some electronics manufacturers have struggled to produce new equipment. Could this be the moment for refurbishing and reusing existing equipment?

Sales of electronics goods have surged in recent months as millions around the world have turned their homes into offices and digital classrooms. Within the first two weeks of March, the US saw computer monitor sales double and demand for laptops, mice, and keyboards all increase by 10%.

That might sound like good news for manufacturers, but the other winners could be those pushing for circular economies that facilitate a continual use of resources.

Arjen Workum, a network consultant at Aliter Networks, a Netherlands company specializing in reusing IT hardware, believes this could be a key moment for sustainable production. He says the fact that many manufacturers haven't been able to produce and supply new equipment, has made them start "to look in other directions to keep their infrastructure running," and that they are now "opening up for our [circular] business model." 

Aliter Networks recently became the first B-Corp certified IT company to promote a circular economy - a certification only received by companies across the world that meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance in business. Since 2009, Aliter has reused over 150,000 IT network products such as switches and routers, saving at least 310,000 kilos of e-waste. 

"We mostly get used networking equipment, which is essentially from where all the data is transmitted. We check any cosmetic damage, repaint it, attach accessories and remarket it around the world," Zimin Chen, Sales Director and Partner at Aliter, told DW. Unlike repaired products, he says refurbished networking devices could have a life of between 10 to 15 years.  

Stack of old DVD players beside discarded monitors

There is no shortage of electronic waste

The company is aiming to reuse half a million IT products by 2025. But if the appetite for refurbished parts continues once supply chain issues are resolved, it might hit the target even sooner.  

Miquel Ballester, Circular Innovation Lead at Fairphone says increased interest in reusing and refurbishing resources is a "perfect example of what happens in a crisis situation when things cannot be taken for granted anymore."

"People start to look into other strategies to achieve the same goals or they change their goals."

Another company that's seen its business increase is Argo360 — a service organization also based in the Netherlands that refurbishes and markets end of life (EOL) IT equipment such as laptops, tablets, mobile phones, and monitors. Many of their customers are hardware manufacturers struggling to source new parts.

 Sandor Bergsma, partner at Argo360 attributes the recent uptick in interest to supply chain issues, and says this is chance for people to realize that "refurbished products work fine."

Is the world ready for a switch to circular?

But in a world that generates about 50 million tons of electric and electronic waste annually — roughly equivalent to discarding 1,000 laptops every single second, opting for refurbished goods is still relatively uncommon. 

Even though the European Union adopted a new Circular Economy Action Plan in March that aims to ensure resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible, there is still the issue of changing mindsets. 

European map covering data about electrical waste across the continent 

IT companies in Europe are legally bound to delete old personal data from organization's systems under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR), but many people remain concerned that older devices can become the source of potential data breaches and leakages. 

"After you've used a certain product, it is important to make sure that you are doing everything the right way because of the environment but also because of the law. So, if you have a company, you are obliged by the law in Europe to remove all data from every employee or person from a workstation or laptop and household at a certain time," Bergsma said.

Read more: Electronic waste reaches record high of 45 million tons 

A box of old cell phones

Just because cell phones can be refurbished...

A close up of a woman's hand holding a smartphone while she uses a laptop 

...doesn't mean everyone wants one

But Hasan Alkas, professor of Macroeconomics at Rhine Waal University of Applied Sciences in Germany, doesn't believe consumers are ready to embrace the "second-hand market” in the long-term. 

"During the crisis nobody wants to spend too much, everyone wants to hold onto the money and if there is a choice between the old one and the new one, you will buy an old one," Alkas told DW, adding that China will ultimately regain its position in the market.  

Students might be one group more readily willing to buy and use refurbished products.

Bhavya Dutta, a 21-year-old engineering student from India is happy to take that route as long the produce in question it has all the necessary specifications, a reasonable price with at least two years warranty. 

"I buy and sell my old Ipads and Iphone all the time," he said. "That's why they have many student groups online where people are looking for cheaper solutions. But at least with refurbished IT products, there is also good quality unlike simply old used devices." 

But for the most part, enabling safe circularity in the IT industry - regardless of the coronavirus crisis - is a challenge that remains new in technological, legal and social spheres.