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Resource and environmental impacts of using second-hand laptop computers: A case study of commercial reuse

André, Hampus, Ljunggren Söderman, Maria, Nordelöf, Anders
Waste management 2019 v.88 pp. 268-279
case studies, circular economy, communications technology, computers, environmental impact, life cycle impact assessment, metals, recycling, toxicity
The circular economy is proposed to reduce environmental impact, but as yet, there is limited empirical evidence of this sort from studying real, commercial circular economy business cases. This study investigates the environmental impacts of using second-hand laptops, mediated by a commercial reuse operation, instead of new ones. The method used is life cycle assessment (LCA) and special attention is given to laptops’ metal resource use by using several complementary life cycle impact assessment methods. The results show that all activities required to enable reuse of laptops are negligible, despite the reuse company’s large geographical scope. Two principal features of reuse reduce environmental impacts. Firstly, use extension reduces all impacts considerably since there are large embedded impacts in components. Secondly, the reuse company steers non-reusable laptops into state-of-the-art recycling. This provides additional impact reductions, especially with regards to toxicity and metal resource use. The results for metal resource use however diverge between LCIA methods in terms of highlighted metals which, in turn, affects the degree of impact reduction. LCIA methods that characterise functionally recycled metals as important, result in larger impact reduction, since these emphasise the merits of steering flows into state-of-the-art recycling. The study thus demonstrates how using second-hand laptops, mediated by a commercial reuse operation, compared to new ones, in practice, reduces different types of environmental impact through synergistic relationships between reuse and recycling. Moreover, it illustrates how the choice of LCIA method can influence interpretations of metal resource use impacts when applying circular economy measures to information and communication technologies (ICT).