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Product release cycles are killing the environment, techies tell British Computer Society

Running Linux on a vintage box is one answer, but someone has to hold big tech's feet to fire

Bringing an end to the relentless nature of annual product release cycles is something that should be top of the agenda for the soon-to-run 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26.

Or so says the BCS, formerly known as the British Computer Society, which reckons cutting electronic waste is the most pressing concern for 30 per cent of the 1,100 plus members it surveyed recently.

Alex Bardell, chair of the BCS Green IT Specialist Group, said reducing e-waste was already on the radar thanks to the chip shortage.

"Rather than being dependent on new devices as soon as we have a failure, the 'right to repair' legislation should be starting to make it easier for people to extend the life of their devices. If the starter motor failed on your car, you would go to the garage and get a new part, rather than chucking the car away.

"The challenge is that the business model for electronics firms is to push their products, like smartphones, on ever smaller time cycles as a way of generating revenue and it really does not need to be this way. It takes combined political, social and commercial will to put the planet ahead of an ever tighter upgrade cycle."

The Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Forum said users are consuming 3 per cent more hardware each year – and smartphones are a particular offender when it comes to gear being dumped.

In the US, for example, 416,000 cellphones are discarded each day, according to the Public Interest Research Group. Kevin O'Reilly, right-to-repair campaign director at the US non-profit told us in July:

"If we were able to extend the lifespan [of phones], on average, by just a year, it would have the carbon-cutting equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road."

When a smashed screen costs almost as much as a replacement smartphone

As noted in these pages before, including via various teardowns by iFixit, smartphone vendors make design choices that ensure repairing and reusing phones can be an unnecessary challenge. For example, Apple blocking replacement cameras in the iPhone 12, or Samsung using far too much glue in its Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G blower.

The UK's Environmental Audit Committee highlighted the case of Apple in September last year, claiming the company refused to answer questions on its record for environmental sustainability and the repairability of its gear.

Committee chairman the Right Honourable Sir Philip Dunne, an MP for Ludlow constituency in Shropshire, thundered:

"With the speed at which new devices are brought to market, tech companies drive consumers to buy new products rather than prolonging the life of their existing items. It can also be very difficult to repair electronics devices with many companies making it almost impossible – or if possible, very expensive – for consumers to have the ability to fix themselves.

"As a result, we're seeing a throwaway society for electronics, and tech companies must take responsibility for the environment impact this causes. A circular economy with repair and recycling at its heart is crucial if we are to tackle the climate emergency."

According to a report from the International Telecommunication Union, called Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, a record 53.6 million tonnes of waste electrical gear was produced in 2019, this was up 21 per cent in the last five years.

The survey by the BCS highlighted that other pressing concerns for members – at least those polled – include carbon transparency reporting, making data centres truly green, giving employees rights to work from home to reduce their carbon footprint and "restricting proof of work" cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin that have a large environmental impact.

Cutting emissions, phasing out unclean energy, curbing deforestation and accelerating the switch to 'leccy vehicles are confirmed topics for discussion at COP26 event to be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Squeezing product release cycles onto that agenda seems doubtful. Vendors should walk the walk themselves rather than trying to placate the public with glossy videos that talk the talk.

At this month's Canalys Forum, Steinar Sønsteby, CEO at Nordic-based Atea, one of Europe's largest tech resellers, said the most important contribution his business makes toward sustainability is recycling and reusing kit.

"Take back the old equipment when you sell new, and we're somewhere around 20 per cent. I'm not talking only about PCs or portable PCs but all equipment. Take it back. Get products or solutions for this... There are materials in there that [are] limited on this Earth."

He said his business took back 550,00 units last year. "We have customers like IKEA who want 20 per cent of the PCs that they buy to be reused [refurbished]," he said.

Atea takes back three-year-old devices, and cleans them physically and digitally before selling them on. "And by the way, it's the most profitable thing we do," said Sønsteby. ®

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