James Pickstone

The true impact of our electronics (and what we can do about it)

5 min Read
Person repairing an open smartphone

The Restart Project helps people learn how to repair their broken electronics and rethink how they consume them in the first place. Big thanks to James, their Online Community Lead, for this insightful guest blog!

It’s December, which means we’re all up to our eyeballs in adverts for shiny new stuff to buy. Let’s face it: doing right by the planet can be tough with the John Lewis Christmas ad pulling at your heartstrings.

But while buying new things is tempting, it’s also a huge driver of climate change. So let’s explore some alternatives that can feel even better than buying new. 

Giving our existing stuff new life through repair and reuse is not only greener, it's also a great way to learn new skills, meet new people and bring deeper meaning to the things we own.

It’s not you, it’s manufacturers (mostly)

At The Restart Project, we help people use devices for longer by running Restart Parties; community events where you can bring along a broken device and learn how to fix it with an experienced volunteer repairer.

We recently set out to discover the true impact of the products we use every day. With the help of our community, we found lifecycle assessment (LCA) reports for nearly 500 products, from laptops to toasters and everything in between. 

These reports are interesting because they estimate the various environmental impacts of manufacturing, shipping, use and disposal of these products. We were most interested in how much greenhouse gas is produced at each stage of a product’s life, measured as CO2 equivalent (CO2e).

Here’s what we found:

For most of the electronics we buy, the majority of the global warming impact occurs before they are used for the first time. 

This is especially true for devices like laptops and smartphones. In fact, up to 80% of a smartphone’s impact happens before it’s ever switched on.

That’s because -- for many products -- extracting raw materials and manufacturing are very carbon intensive processes.

Here’s how some common household items stack up:

Product Category Pre-use CO2e impact as percentage of total
Blender 84%
Smartphone 79%
Laptop 77%
Desktop computer 53%
Vacuum cleaner 32%
Kettle 16%
Toaster 16%

But let’s dig a bit deeper. The most common devices we see at our repair events are medium-sized laptops. 

We found that an average laptop of this size represents somewhere around 263 kg of embodied CO2e. That’s roughly equivalent to one person flying from London to Rome and around 81% of the total CO2e it produces over its entire life. Yet for most laptops, the manufacturer assumed a lifespan of just 4 years.

Here’s how the hidden environmental cost of a laptop builds up over such a short lifespan:

A graph showing the CO2e impact of replacing a laptop every 4 years

While these CO2e figures are estimations, the cumulative impact of replacing a device so often is clear. When products aren’t designed to last or be repaired, emissions increase. So what can we do about it?

A better way

It’s quite simple really. We can reduce these environmental costs by using the things we already own for longer. By extending the life of our possessions and fixing them when they break, we can slow down the stream of newly manufactured products.

Here’s what happens if we extend the life of a laptop by 50% or 100% beyond the manufacturer’s estimated lifespan:

Graphs showing the CO2e impact of replacing a laptop every 6 or 8 years

The longer we use a laptop before replacing it, the lower our CO2e impact will be over time. And this is true for most products around the house.

These savings can add up quickly too. In the UK alone, we could reduce our emissions by a whopping 25 million tonnes if we focus on using products longer.

Here’s how you can play your part:

  • Repair something! And if you’d like a hand, visit a community repair event -- they’re good fun and a chance to meet new local people and learn a new skill.
  • Can’t fix it yourself? Why not support a local independent repair business. If you’re in London, find one in our London Repair Directory.
  • Need something new (to you)? Consider getting one second hand or refurbished. From charity shops to sites like Backmarket, there are plenty of options.
  • Review your workplace’s procurement policy. What else can you do to extend the lifespan of your devices, get more stuff secondhand and ensure any devices you don’t need anymore can be reused?
  • Visit your local sharing library (or Library of Things) to borrow tools or other items you may not need long-term.

In 2019, the average UK citizen generated more than 3x the global average in e-waste.

Read on to learn about why this is such a massive problem, and how an e-waste policy could benefit your business.
Read more

Together we can do more

Just as importantly, you can also support the global movement making repair and reuse easier in the first place.

To reduce the environmental cost of our electronics, we also need to change the system: we need manufacturers to clean up production and remove barriers to repair. 

The Restart Project is part of a movement calling for the Right to Repair in countries around the world. We’re already making progress and you can help build the momentum:

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