Eco Friendly Laptop

How to choose a sustainable and ethical laptop

written byRebecca Daniel

Rebecca Daniel @themarinediaries

Laptops are incredibly versatile, allowing you to work from anywhere in the world (Wi-Fi permitting) or binge on Netflix from the comfort of your bed. When was the last time you bought a new laptop? It’s likely it wasn’t more than 3 years ago, or 5 at a push. It’s estimated that 160 million new laptops are made every year, and a total of 160,000 are thrown away every day in the EU. But what is the impact of this? And how can one be sure they are buying a sustainable and ethical laptop?

Environmental impact of a laptop

Generally, when looking at the carbon footprint of a laptop, we tend to think about their energy consumption first. A laptop that is on for around 8 hours per day emits between 44-88kg of CO2 per year, but according to Lars Meiritz, the vice-president at Gartner, only 20% of the environmental impact of a laptop arises from its use. So, where does the other 80% come from?

It is essential to look at the whole lifecycle of a laptop when considering its environmental impact. The resource consumption, carbon emissions, pollution, and e-waste from a laptop will be determined by factors such as:

•     The supply chain that brings materials to the factory

•     The energy and type of materials used in manufacturing

•     The manufacturing techniques used

•     Delivery to the end user

•     Durability and life expectancy of the laptop

•     End-of-life recycling potential of the laptop

A pile of e-waste typifies how un-sustainable laptops can be
It’s estimated that 160 million new laptops are made every year, and a total of 160,000 are thrown away every day in the EU.

Production

Making laptops is an energy-intensive process, both from the materials used and the building of the device. The materials used in laptops consist mainly of plastic and metals. Plastic production accounts for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, nearly double that of aviation. Metals are mined all over the world; cobalt from Congo, silver from Peru, Lithium from Zimbabwe… the list goes on. Not only does land clearing for mining release carbon dioxide, but these metals need to be transported around the world to manufacturing sites. China manufactures around 70% of laptops globally, with factories typically powered by coal, which releases high amounts of carbon emissions. Add to this the carbon emissions from transporting the finished device to suppliers around the world, and the manufacture of just one laptop creates around 214 kilograms of CO2.

Most modern laptops are not sustainable as they are designed to last just a few years, and are hard to upgrade, meaning that when memory starts to fill up or the battery starts to give out, it is often easier and cheaper to buy a new model. This short life expectancy means that e-waste is one of the largest growing waste streams globally.

A mine in the mountains. Mining practices means that most laptops are neither sustainable nor ethical.
Land clearing for mining not only destroys beautiful landscapes but releases carbon dioxide.

Ethical impact of a laptop

Not only do laptops have an environmental impact, but their manufacture also creates social issues. Several of the metals used are mined in areas of conflict and almost half of the world’s cobalt comes from Congo, where children as young as seven work in mines putting them at risk of lung damage and causing skin conditions. Factory workers manufacturing laptops are submitted to ‘prison-like’ conditions. Even e-waste, typically shipped to developing countries, puts waste ‘pickers’ in harm’s way.

child labour is one of the major ethical impacts of a laptop's materials.
Children as young as seven mine for special metals used in laptop computers.

The most sustainable solution for a laptop is taking care of the one you have.

Rebecca Daniel

A sustainable laptop is in the upcycling

Despite newer laptops having higher energy efficiency and lower embodied carbon emissions, you’d be mistaken to think the most sustainable option would be to trade in your old laptop for a new one. An estimated 70% of laptops can be reused, and surprisingly if a new laptop is 10% more energy efficient than your old one, the emissions from its production, distribution, and disposal would take decades to recoup.

 

So, the most sustainable solution for a laptop: take care of the one you have, and repair it when needed. Components like batteries, RAM and storage can be upgraded easily, but other parts are slightly harder to replace – we’d recommend contacting the brand to check options and costs.

A laptop being repaired.  To minimise the environmental and ethical impact of a laptop, is to keep your current one in circulation longer.
Keeping your laptop in circulation and out of landfill for longer is better than upgrading to a newer, more energy efficient laptop.

Buying a sustainable laptop

Refurbished

You can easily find refurbished or renewed laptops online, which often come with a new warranty.

New

Simply replacing a laptop with a new model means many of the environmental costs mentioned at the start of this article are incurred again. Even a super energy efficient model will only deliver a limited reduction in its carbon footprint over its whole life cycle.

But, if you really do need to buy a new model, some things to look out for are:

  • Energy efficiency – reducing the energy needed to manufacture and use the laptop
  • Materials innovation – minimising the use of materials, especially harmful materials
  • Designed for upgrade and recycling – laptops that can have more memory or a larger hard disc added, including the availability of spare parts

Circular computing produce the world’s first remanufactured sustainable carbon-neutral laptops. A study by Cranfield University has shown that remanufactured HP, Lenovo, and Dell laptops all performed at 93-97% of the levels of a new computer from the same brands.

Check out the Ethical Consumer comparison table for ethical laptops, PC’s, and tablets, and find out more about the issues associated with laptops here.

With HP you can calculate the carbon footprint of your laptop before purchase.

If you have found these tips on sourcing a sustainable and ethical laptop guide useful, we also recommend our Sustainable Smartphones guide.

Circular computing produce the world’s first remanufactured carbon-neutral laptops.
Circular computing produce the world’s first remanufactured carbon-neutral laptops.
A lady using a laptop in a cafe. Ensure your nest laptop is both sustainable and ethical.
Safety Hand

Choosing a sustainable and ethical laptop

Turn on power management to reduce energy use
Take care of the laptop you have, and repair it when needed
Only replace when the laptop comes to the end of its working life
Trade in or recycle your old laptop whenever purchasing a new one
Choose refurbished or remanufactured laptops
If going for a new laptop look for models which are energy efficient, use less materials, and are designed to be easily upgraded or recycled
Look up Circular computing for carbon-neutral laptops.
Check out the Ethical Consumer comparison table for ethical PC’s, laptops and tablets
Donate old laptop to a friend, colleague or charity shop.

Sources & further reading

Peer Reviewed Research Section
  1. Our commitment to sustainable IT - Circular ComputingExternal link
  2. Shipment forecast of tablets, laptops and desktop PCs worldwide from 2010 to 2023 - StatistaExternal linkIcon Peer Review
  3. How much power does a computer use? And how much CO2 does that represent? - Energuide.beExternal link
  4. Carbon footprint of laptops for export from China empirical results and policy implications - Journal of Cleaner ProductionExternal linkIcon Peer Review
  5. Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics - Nature Climate ChangeExternal linkIcon Peer Review
  6. Timely replacement of a notebook under consideration of environmental aspects - 6. UmweltbundesamtExternal link

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