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It’s time to reimagine the lifecycle of our devices

Circularity can help businesses make hardware work for longer while minimising waste.

In today’s digital age, people are more reliant than ever on electronic devices. We’re always seeking newer, faster technology to simplify our lives, at home and at work. But the demand for rapid innovation has led to an unfortunate, unintended consequence: electronic waste, or e-waste for short.

Most users rarely consider the origins of their mobile phones and computers, yet every electronic device starts its journey with the extraction of essential raw materials from the earth, including metals like copper and aluminium. These materials are transported and processed before manufacturing, consuming vast amounts of time, energy, and other resources. Aside from the devices we have all grown to rely on, the result is a substantial environmental footprint.

These end-user devices then enter the global markets, travelling across the world to consumers and businesses. In 2021, the number of mobile phones exceeded 15 billion worldwide. This is projected to rise to over 18 billion by 2025.

With the average British person retaining their mobile phone for only about two years before upgrading, people are seeking improved technology at an increased rate. But what happens to our old device once we no longer wish to use them?

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Typically, end-of-life for electronic devices entails recycling or disposal. Approximately 57 million metric tonnes of e-waste – including phones, computers, tablets and chargers – was generated worldwide in 2021. Shockingly, less than a fifth of e-waste undergoes formal recycling. The majority degrades in landfill sites, contaminating the environment with toxic materials and posing threats to ecosystems and human health.

Policymakers are finally waking up to the problem. The UN’s Global E-Waste Monitor tracks 41 countries’ official e-waste statistics, and in October 2019 the EU introduced new “right to repair” standards, compelling firms to make longer-lasting appliances and supply spare parts for up to ten years. But there is still a long way to go, and individual businesses have an important role to play.

Google is championing a greener future, actively pursuing decarbonisation by 2030 since 2007 and investing $3.3bn in renewable energy projects since 2012. Recognising the pressing issue of e-waste, Google Chrome Enterprise has developed ChromeOS Flex, a solution that brings new life to existing hardware.

Circularity is a simple but important concept that can help businesses extend the use of their devices for longer, while minimising the raw material consumption that contributes to landfill waste. Where the standard device is usually discarded within just a few years, a circular approach means manufacturers bake sustainability into every step of a device’s journey. This involves designing products that are energy efficient, optimising their systems for longer use, and ensuring that devices are collected and recycled at the end of their lives.

ChromeOS Flex is a secure, cloud-first operating system for PCs and Macs, that works to extend an end-user device’s longevity. By reimagining device management and prolonging the lifespan of hardware, ChromeOS Flex reduces e-waste and mitigates against environmental harm. In fact, ChromeOS offers support for devices for up to ten years, the longest support provided by any operating system. So far, ChromeOS Flex has demonstrated potential emissions savings of up to 96 per cent and a 100 per cent reduction in e-waste generation within its first year.

“Desktops, notebooks and tablets are very important to us,” said Michael Wyatt, the director for Google ChromeOS EMEA. “And when you think 450 million of those are made every year, the fewer that we can put into e-waste and the better way that we can manufacture those sustainably, obviously it’s better for everybody. One of the big things is really prolonging the lifecycle of the devices that people have.”

The “mission that we’ve been on over the last year and a half”, Wyatt, said on a special episode of the New Statesman podcast, is “trying to get companies to look at distance strategies to become more sustainable in their companies.”

When PCs reach their end of life, he added, “we’re saying that doesn’t have to be an obsolete PC. You can actually continue to use that… Renewing rather than replacing PCs is probably one of the best ways to demonstrate your net zero strategy.”

Nordic Choice Hotels is an example to note. When the chain was hit by a ransomware attack, the company expected to be offline for weeks. But the hotel swiftly recovered operations within a couple of days using ChromeOS Flex.

“Amazingly, this massive security challenge was solved in just one weekend,” explained Kari Anna Fiskvik, vice-president of technology at Nordic Choice Hotels. “We were able to recover by installing ChromeOS Flex, replacing Windows, on our devices. It was so easy to deploy. We provided a one-page guide along with a ChromeOS Flex USB to employees and they were able to convert 2,000 computers in 48 hours across 200 hotels in 5 countries. All with minimal help from IT.”

Nordic Choice Hotels ultimately gained from the debacle. Not only did the company remain open and operational, it extended the life of its ageing and insecure IT hardware, reducing the need for frequent replacements. The chain also enjoyed substantial cost savings and a significant reduction in e-waste. Its experience underscores the importance of designing products with longevity, fostering both financial and environmental benefits.

Fiskvik remarked: “As a company, we have a strong focus on sustainability and digital innovation – for our customers as well as our employees. ChromeOS Flex checked all of these boxes for us.”

Businesses now have a unique opportunity to reconsider their contribution to the e-waste crisis. By adopting a circular approach to IT through solutions like ChromeOS Flex, organisations can improve their operations, fulfil their sustainability goals, and reduce the need for endless hardware upgrades. 

Organisations and individuals can reimagine their approach to hardware and contribute to a future that is sustainable and e-waste free. 

[See also: Drowning in legacy tech: The move to sustainable computing]