Reducing e-waste: Could refurbished IT equipment be better than new?

Written by Tom Greenwood - December 10, 2021

For many years now, our team here at Wholegrain Digital have been working to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of digital technology. As a web design agency, we have primarily focused on the software side of things, highlighting how decisions made in design and development can have a real impact on data consumption, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, IT is very much an industry of two halves, and while we can make some big environmental improvements through software, we also need to consider the hardware. Contrary to common perception, digital technology is not “virtual” and is not simply vapors in “the cloud”, but is very much physical, down here on earth. 

Aliter Networks website design

We recently designed the new low carbon website for Aliter Networks, a company in Europe and Asia striving to reduce the environmental impact of IT equipment, in particular by reducing electronic waste (also known as e-waste). This collaboration gave us an opportunity to learn more about the hardware side of our industry, the environmental issues that it poses and what some of the solutions might be. 

Tamil Karikalan from Aliter Networks kindly spent some time with me to talk about the issue of e-waste and how refurbishment of IT equipment is a powerful part of the solution.

The issue of e-waste 

We all know what it feels like to buy a new piece of electronic equipment like a smartphone. It’s so shiny and perfect, fresh out of the box. But in the excitement of receiving our new device, how much thought do we give to the old one? 

Every year, we generate 50 million tonnes of e-waste worldwide, with nearly a quarter of that being produced here in Europe. To put that in context, it’s equivalent in weight to throwing away 4 million double decker London buses, or 5000 Eiffel towers. That’s one hell of a big pile of trash, and it’s trash that is full of exotic materials, bonded together in complex assemblies that are extremely difficult to recycle. In fact, only 20% of IT equipment worldwide is currently recycled, leaving the other 4000 Eiffel towers literally going to the scrap heap, together with billions of dollars worth of valuable materials such as copper and gold.

The global e-waste problem is not just consumer devices such as phones and laptops, but also the commercial equipment that powers our digital world behind the scenes, such as servers and routers in data centres and telecoms networks.

Young men burning electrical wires to recover copper at Agbogbloshie, September 2019. Photo by Muntaka Chasant

Much of this waste is exported, putting it out of sight and out of mind for those of us who benefit from it in developed countries. It’s led to the rise of so-called e-waste settlements such as Agbogbloshie near the centre of Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Here, some of the world’s poorest people, including children, wade through the toxic remains of electronic equipment to salvage anything that they could use or trade. Often this involves setting fire to piles of e-waste to recover the valuable copper, polluting the land, air and nearby river with toxic chemicals.

This problem will not go away on its own, as our use of digital technology accelerates and more of the world’s population get “connected”, the e-waste problem is growing.

Is circular IT the solution?

With the amount of IT equipment used globally only set to increase, we urgently need a solution to this e-waste crisis. One of the proposed solutions is the concept of circular IT. 

The Circular Economy is a term used to refer to an economy in which materials are reused in an ongoing, closed loop so that nothing ever ends up as “waste”. I’ve talked about this in a number of recent presentations and this blog post. Circular IT simply means applying the principles of the circular economy to the IT sector, closing the loop on these materials so that they don’t end up on the scrap heap.

A big part of this is expanding IT recycling infrastructure worldwide, designing products and supply chains to support a closed loop approach, and tightening up regulations to prevent the export of materials to places where they won’t be handled safely. However, in the concept of a circular economy, recycling should really only ever be the last resort, since recycling is actually a very difficult process and materials are nearly always downgraded during the process, making them only suitable for lower quality applications. 

The question then is how do we limit the amount of electronic equipment that ever becomes waste? 

Refurbishing IT equipment

Aliter Nework’s solution is to focus on refurbishment of IT equipment as the front line of the shift to more circular IT. The objective of refurbishing IT equipment is to keep it working for as long as possible. By extending the life of equipment, the amount of e-waste is reduced at the same time that the amount of new equipment sold can also be reduced. This also avoids further environmental damage in manufacturing such as mining, water consumption and significant greenhouse gas emissions.

At this point, you might start wondering why companies would get rid of equipment unless it has already reached the end of its useful life. I certainly did. Tamil explained that OEMs (the original equipment manufacturers) have a business model based on selling the latest generation of equipment to their customers, promising them benefits such as improved speed, reliability and security. Some of this is valid and there are cases where an organisation may need to upgrade to new IT equipment, but in many cases it’s not so straightforward. The trouble is that much of the information that companies receive about their IT comes from the sales and marketing team at the OEMs. Without an impartial adviser, it can be very hard for companies to know which equipment actually needs upgrading.

What’s interesting about companies like Aliter is that they are focused on reducing the amount of equipment going to waste. Unlike the OEMs, their incentive is not to sell you the latest thing, but to help you maximise the life of your existing equipment. Even in cases where you do need new equipment, they can refurbish your old equipment and find a new home for it so that it continues to deliver use to people and doesn’t become waste so quickly.

IT refurbishment can work in a number of ways, all of which contribute to reducing e-waste. Some of these include:

  1. Testing and refurbishing equipment for companies so that they can continue using it for longer
  2. Refurbishing working equipment that is no longer needed and finding new homes for it
  3. Replacing failed components to extend the life of existing equipment
  4. Upgrading previous generations of equipment with new compatible components to give them a new lease of life with improved performance

These approaches are not just good for the environment, but can also save companies significant amounts of money. It can reduce the amount of money spent on buying new equipment that isn’t needed, while also reducing the amount of money paid to waste companies to dispose of old equipment. Furthermore, for those companies that purchase refurbished equipment, they can often achieve the same level of performance with cost savings of between 65-90%. 

This really sounds like a no brainer. There must be a catch.

What about reliability?

The benefits of refurbished equipment sound pretty amazing on the surface, but I wondered whether reliability could be the achilles heel. I think there is a natural assumption that old equipment is more likely to fail.

If businesses are depending on their IT equipment for essential business operations then reliability and uptime is critical, and perhaps the cost savings made with older equipment could be a false economy. 

This is where Tamil surprised me the most, pointing to the bathtub curve, which highlights how new equipment is actually less reliable than older equipment that has stood the test of time. Only when the equipment approaches the very end of its design life does reliability begin to degrade again.

Graph showing the bathtub curve, shaped like a bathtub, with failure rate high at the beginning and end of life but low in the middle

Although refurbished equipment may be perceived as less reliable and more risky, it can actually be more reliable, not just because it is in the middle phase of the bathtub curve, but because it has been tested more thoroughly than new equipment. Aliter Network’s run both hardware and software based tests on the devices they refurbish, replace and test any faulty components, and repair any cosmetic damage on the device casing so that what you are buying not only looks as good as new, but is tested more thoroughly than when it was new. 

As such they are then able to issue new warranties (even lifetime warranties) with the refurbished equipment, giving the customer confidence in the quality of the product as well as the reassurance that there is a support team on standby to help them if they do have any issues, just like when buying new.

Why isn’t this normal?

With the benefits of refurbished equipment so clear, I have to wonder why on earth this is not standard practice. Surely we would all be better off in a world where we extend the life of IT equipment as long as possible and only purchase new equipment when absolutely necessary. 

It seems like the answer largely comes back to the OEMs themselves. Huge global tech companies like HP and Dell have a business model that is based on their customers switching out their devices every three to five years. Companies like Aliter Networks are saying that you can extend that a lot more further, that you can double it. The big OEMs don’t really want you to know this and they spend a lot of money marketing their latest products, making them “desirable” and emphasising their benefits. They are not spending money telling their customers that they could be better off repairing their equipment or buying second hand. 

As a result, awareness of the availability and benefits of refurbished equipment is very low. Companies like Aliter are doing their best to raise this awareness and change perceptions so that it can one day become normal. 

Tamil told me that “a lot of the OEMs now are positioning themselves as being circular IT minded, so we are having a friend and advocate kind of relationship”. As organisations around the world look to embed sustainable practices more deeply, demand for refurbishing and extending the life of IT products could potentially skyrocket in the coming years and so it’s a huge growing market. It’s interesting to hear how independent companies like Aliter Networks are leading the way forward for an industry dominated by a few big players. 

How does this work in practice?

So let’s say that your organisation thinks that refurbished IT sounds like a good idea. How would you actually implement it? After all, your usual OEM vendor is unlikely to offer it to you. I think this uncertainty is one of the barriers to adoption, but in practice it’s simple so long as you can find a trusted partner.

Companies like Aliter Networks work with organisations to understand their current infrastructure and their future IT requirements. They then hold the clients hand through the process of identifying which equipment could be kept in use for longer, whether refurbished equipment could be purchased to meet new requirements as well as identifying the instances where new equipment is the best option. This blended approach allows the customer to achieve the best outcomes of cost, performance and reliability. They also then have a trusted partner who can repair equipment on the occasions where something does break.

For equipment that is no longer needed, having a refurbishment partner means that you don’t need to throw it all in a skip but have someone who can take it off your hands, refurbish as much as possible and find a new market for it or donate it to a charity that needs IT equipment.

Check out this video from Aliter Networks for a quick view of how refurbishment works.

Going beyond refurbishment

One of the joys of working with Aliter Networks for us has been working with a company that genuinely cares about trying to create a more sustainable world and aligning their business practices with their values. 

Reusing IT products is their core business and they have reused over 150,000 IT products and saved over 310,000 kilos of e-waste since they were founded in 2009.

They’re a Certified B Corp like us and strive to keep learning and delivering more positive impact. They have designed their packaging to be as eco-friendly as possible for shipping equipment to customers, they monitor and offset their carbon emissions, plant trees for each customer as a token to give something back to nature, and support charities with the supply of high quality refurbished IT equipment. 

Towards greener IT

Just like sustainable web design, we need to raise awareness of the issues of electronic waste and normalise the use of refurbished equipment. Here at Wholegrain we have had a procurement policy that specifies the use of refurbished IT equipment where available for many years, so if you’ve worked with us then your website was likely developed on refurbished equipment. 

Although it’s not yet mainstream, it is getting a lot easier. For IT infrastructure such as servers and routers, companies like Aliter Networks partner with you to make it easy and ensure that you are looked after. For personal electronics like smart phones and laptops there are options such as Backmarket, Reboxed (a fellow B Corp) and the refurbished section of the Apple online store.

The benefits are clear. Significantly reduced e-waste, significantly reduced impact from the manufacturing of new equipment, improved reliability and potentially very large cost savings, freeing up money that could be invested in staff, innovation or giving back to society and the environment. What’s not to like?