From Refurbished to Recycled: The Growing Trend in Sustainable Tech

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Completing the circle

Sustainability is a priority for many businesses now, and many are looking towards buying pre-owned equipment, or ensuring that devices are recycled at the end of their life and resellers have a key role in this developing circular economy. 

With many businesses now having an environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) policy in place, sustainability is a corporate priority that’s here to stay, and it is changing how businesses look to purchase and dispose of devices. 

A survey by Alchemy of 4,000 businesses globally revealed that 58% are considering buying refurbished devices in the next two years. On average, 83% businesses have an ESG policy in place. “However, this drops significantly when looking at businesses with fewer than 50 employees, with just 46% having an ESG policy,” notes Stephen Wise, global marketing director, circular economy at Alchemy. 

“While it’s great that so many businesses have an ESG policy, Alchemy’s research shows that 40% do not consider the impact of their device tech estate – mobiles, laptops and tablets – within it. This is a huge oversight, as buying refurbished IT devices, rather than new, avoids on average 76.05kg of CO2 emissions per device. For example, if you needed to buy 100 smartphones for your team, by buying refurbished you could save more than eight tons of CO2 emissions. Reducing a business’s CO2 impact through refurbished tech is particularly important for companies with large Scope 3 emissions, such as service companies or those that outsource most of their operations. 

“Opting for an 18-month-old smartphone can save businesses and consumers as much as 70% on that of a new device, and up to 50% on laptops, fundamentally reshaping the overall ownership costs for numerous employees.”

Arjan Paulussen, managing director Lexmark UK, Western Europe and English-speaking Africa, notes that sustainability and the implementation of circular business models is de rigueur as environmental protection laws are being tightened throughout Europe. “In addition, the environmentally conscious generation of millennials is moving into decision-making positions and their purchasing power is increasing,” he says. 

“We are also seeing an increasing demand for sophisticated sustainability strategies from our partners and customers, across the board – from large enterprises to medium-sized and small businesses. We work closely with partners in this area and support them in tenders, for example, where the environmental aspect is becoming increasingly important.”

It isn’t just a priority among businesses. Taranpreet Rai, corporate sustainability manager at Epson UK, adds that recent research by Epson highlighted the importance of sustainability to consumers with 26% indicating a willingness to boycott brands perceived as ‘unsustainable’.

“Therefore, embracing a business model rooted in the circular economy offers businesses the chance to drive long-term profitability by minimising waste, optimising resource use and enhancing brand reputation,” she says.

Richard Eglon, CMO at Nebula Global Services, agrees, adding that in a partner-led market such as the technology channel it is imperative that companies of all sizes acknowledge the circular economy and the part they play in that value chain. “The chain is only as strong as the weakest link so building an ecosystem of sustainability conscious businesses is not about outperforming your fellow businesses, it’s about sharing experiences, insights and knowledge to build a stronger value chain,” he says.  

“As part of an outcome-based market, manufacturers are no longer the conductor leading the technology channel orchestra, the end consumer is. Consumers are now demanding more from the technology channel and that starts with the products and the impact their production has on Scope 1 and 2 emissions. In addition, distributors are looking at ways they can extend the lifecycle of products by partnering with lifecycle service specialists to deliver a more sustainable circular economy that delivers transparent Scope 3 value chain reporting.”   

Giles Houston, head of global alliances at NSC Global, adds. “It’s a whole societal thing nowadays,” he says. “If you want to differentiate yourself in the market, then you’ve got to have something that’s really concrete to back up your words on sustainability. Anyone can greenwash but now it is a case of how you go about delivering against those statements.

“From a manufacturer perspective, there’s always this dilemma: how do we present the circular economy, but at the same time make our numbers? So it is down to the channel to be the powerhouse of change, because we can earn money, whether we sell a new router for a refurbished or second-hand router.” 

Reverse logistics

Some, such as Westcon-Comstor, have developed ‘reverse logistics’ programmes. For example, when customer-owned networking equipment has reached the end of its useful life in the field, Westcon-Comstor facilitate the return of the equipment to its facilities. Here, the equipment is assessed, cleaned, re-boxed and made available for re-use in another setting. There are also ‘blended’ solutions, which combine new equipment with approved vendor remanufactured equipment, which matches the quality and functionality of new equipment. Finally, when equipment has genuinely reached the end of its life, it is passed to authorised IT recyclers for maximum resource recovery and environmentally friendly handling of residual waste. In the 2023 financial year, Westcon-Comstor disposed of an estimated 15,000kg of electrical equipment.

“By enabling circular technology and reverse logistics, we help our partners reduce waste and add value by recycling refurbished equipment into the IT economy, meeting end-customers’ growing needs for responsibly produced IT,” says Mark McLardie, head of ESG at Westcon-Comstor.

“Our primary approach is to extend the lifespan of existing equipment where possible. We do this through our refurbishment and re-use program. We also support delivery of authorised remanufactured equipment as a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to new equipment.

“Electronic waste, or ‘e-waste’ is one of the world’s fastest growing waste streams, producing over 50 million tonnes annually since 2017. This is projected to double to over 120 million tonnes per year by 2050.

“Unfortunately, only about 20% of e-waste is recycled appropriately, and this has significant environmental consequences, including contamination of air, soil and water. Common chemicals found in these products, such as nickel, lead and mercury pose serious health risks.

“Additionally, from a resource perspective, many valuable metals and minerals present in these products are lost and never recovered.

“Repurposing existing network equipment is a significant challenge in our industry. Embracing the principles of the circular economy, we’re working with our partners to move away from the traditional ‘take, make, waste’ linear approach to a circular model. In this model, products are reused, repaired and repurposed, with materials recovered and any remaining waste disposed of in the most environmentally friendly way possible.”

The role of Resellers

Resellers have an important role to play in encouraging businesses to recycle devices. For example, if mobile phones are being replaced in an upgrade programme, one barrier to overcome is a concern over data security, as device recycling specialist WeBuyAnyPhone.com found out. 

“Resellers have an important role to play in explaining to businesses the benefits of recycling and encouraging them to consider putting devices they are replacing into the circular economy, benefiting the environment while helping them offset the cost of new devices,” says Aaron Brown, of WeBuyAnyPhone.com. “Businesses tell us that the number one issue they face in recycling devices is a concern about data security.

“We launched WeBuyPro as a service that can go direct to businesses and partner with resellers, giving their customers peace of mind and proof that when they recycle devices that their data is securely wiped.

“Businesses using WeBuyPro receive two certificates. The first confirms the secure data wipe, and the second records the environmental benefits of recycling the devices and can be used as evidence in support of the business’s ESG credentials.”

Richard adds that resellers have a significant opportunity to deliver real value to their end clients and differentiate themselves from their competitors. “With many resellers set up to simply ‘resell’ product, their mindset and business models need to change to remain relevant in a changing market,” he says. “This provides opportunity for many, and those reseller businesses who have identified this and have collaborated with sustainability-focused, lifecycle and services partners to create new value propositions, that are relevant in today’s market, will become the new breed of VAR.”  

In addition, resellers should provide a clear cost-benefit analysis contrasting the purchase of refurbished tech vs new, says Stephen. “Underscoring the significant savings and their potential reallocation towards other company needs,” he says. “Resellers should also consider the value of trading in unused devices as well, which can give you a welcome boost.

 “By working with a partner, like Alchemy, you’ll get a much better understanding of how much Co2e could be saved across the board by trading in old devices and buying refurbished tech. They are also more likely to be licenced resellers, making it easier to demonstrate the quality of the refurbished product, which can provide reassurance.

 “By opting for refurbished tech and trading in unused ones, or those at the end of their term, businesses can save money, redeem value, and help to reduce environmental impact. The sooner we get the message out, the sooner we can all reap the benefits.” 

Taranpreet adds resellers need to ensure that they are selecting manufacturers that invest in areas such as energy efficiency and the circular economy. “Therefore, offering products that not only reduce environmental impact but also provide long-term cost-savings to the end user,” she says. “This commitment can be a compelling value proposition for end users and business partners. In short, it’s a win-win for all parties.

“In addition, resellers should be providing guidance to customers on energy-efficient products, educating customers on the benefits of sustainable products and offering recycling programmes. This should also involve emphasising the importance of product longevity and maintenance, as seen with Epson’s extended warranty and parts replacement programme, which ensures a longer serviceable life for printers.”

Manufacturer response

As this shows, manufacturers are also playing their part in the circular economy. “Sustainability has been in Lexmark’s DNA for over 25 years and is now an integral part of our products and solutions,” says Arjan. 

“Our devices are built to last for seven plus years and can remain in use for a particularly long time thanks to their robustness. This saves money and benefits the environment, as fewer devices need to be remanufactured, recycled or disposed of. Our take-back programmes for print cartridges and print devices – LCCP and LECP – also make it easy for our partners and customers. 

“Furthermore, they motivate the end user to take an active role in a successful circular economy model. This results in high remanufacturing rates, while our partners and customers are reducing their resource consumption, pollution and carbon footprint. Resellers should also point out to their customers the efficient use of Lexmark devices with energy and toner-saving mode, high-capacity toner cartridges, automatic duplex printing and page-saving MPS programmes contributing to saving resources and energy.”    

Taranpreet adds that manufacturers are increasingly building new products using the combination of new, repaired and spare parts that would have been disposed of otherwise, known as remanufacturing. “This is a vital step in extending product lifecycles, better utilising resources and reducing cost,” she says.

“In the print industry specifically, we’ve seen a growing trend among manufacturers to focus on recyclable products such as ink bottles and ink tanks and prioritising more modern inkjet alternatives. Epson, for example, is an advocate for heat-free inkjet technology, which significantly reduces energy consumption and CO2 emissions globally.”

Network as a Service

Giles says that many devices in the field are on a three or five-year cycle. “But that device at the end of that third or fifth year is probably still fit for purpose,” he says. “It’s how you get that more extra life out of that device.

“Even when a device is past its useful life, there’s still some value in that. There are various organisations that are recycling and extracting all the precious metals out of circuit boards and the like. There’s a finite amount of resources in the ground to create these circuit boards so we should make sure we’re leaching the value out of the circuit boards when they end their useable life. 

“We will see different business models as well. Something we’re working on now is network as a service, trying to deliver everything you normally consume as a purchase, as a service. That means we hold on to all the hardware and networking equipment and are responsible for that. That model enables us to be much more in control of those devices. For example, if a device goes into customer A for a three-year period, and then customer A wants to upgrade, we can then put those devices into customer B, or we can recycle it. We are in control because it’s owned by us and that’s another value benefit from network as a service offerings.”

Future

The circular economy will continue to grow in importance in the coming years, especially with more sustainable governance and legislation being introduced across the world. “The concept of a circular economy and sustainable practices in general are expected to continue growing as a priority for businesses in the future,” says Taranpreet. “The drive towards sustainability is motivated by environmental concerns, economic benefits, as well as consumer demand for responsible practices. 

“Regulatory pressures are also pushing businesses toward more sustainable operations, making companies more inclined to adopt circular economy principles.”

Richard adds that it is “imperative that companies of all sizes prioritise their ESG/sustainability strategy to remain relevant. 

“In terms of where businesses start on their sustainability journey, a good place is aligning to the UN Sustainable Development Goals by introducing a materiality assessment across their own business and supply chain. The resulting feedback then allows businesses to set some realistic goals that are relevant to their eco-system, alongside implementing a carbon reduction plan that looks to reduce their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.”   

Arjan notes that the circular economy, sustainability and remanufacturing are drivers of innovation and hold great potential. “By being the exclusive print industry partner for EU-funded projects, such as C-SERVEES, CE-RISE and DiCiM, Lexmark is making great strides in taking best-practice circular economy models, such as our cartridge return programme, LCCP, or our Digital Product Passport approaches, to an industry level and beyond,” he says. 

But for a circular economy to really take hold, a rethink across society is crucial, he adds. “Environmental protection and sustainability must become priority corporate goals, production methods and design must change, processes must be rethought and close cooperation with partners and customers is also required,” he says. “It takes an overarching, joint effort to turn our previously linear economy in the direction of a circular economy.” 

Stephen concludes by emphasising the imperative for the circular economy. “As individuals and businesses, we need to listen to the increasingly urgent calls for practical solutions to the climate emergency and the growing issue of e-waste,” he says. “The latter is best highlighted by the sheer scale of the numbers: as a planet, we amassed nearly 54 million tonnes of e-waste in 2019 alone. 

“These statistics underline the need to quickly transition to a more considered form of consumer culture. When it comes to tech, we need to build a circular economy – one that truly maximises resource utility.”