‘Huge opportunities’ in reusing and remanufacturing smart devices
Six new strategies for the reuse and remanufacturing of 'smart devices' could benefit sales, as well as cutting down on waste in the industry, a new report has claimed.
'A circular economy for smart devices', produced by the Green Alliance, an independent environmental think tank, has analysed the second-hand device market in the UK, US and India and identified how laptops, smartphones and tablets can be profitably recovered and resold.
Research conducted for the 42-page report found that there are up to 125 million smartphones lying unused in UK homes, while 89 per cent of the 141 million mobile devices thrown away in the US in 2010 went to landfill "even though the resources they contain mean it is economically sensible to recycle them”.
However, the report argues that rather than disposing or recycling mobile phones, businesses could make more money and reduce their environmental impact by reusing and/or remanufacturing. The parts of a discarded two-year-old iPhone, it claims, could be worth up to £170 - nearly one third of the original sales value of the device, while redesigning devices to streamline the recovery of high-value components like displays and cameras could be of value to hardware companies, as well as the environment.
Six business models
As such, the report outlines six different business models for a circular economy that companies ’in different parts of the supply chain’ can use to ‘adapt to consumer preferences for lower cost, longer-lasting electronics’, and ’realise the benefits of a circular economy’. These are:
Green Alliance argues that ’out of date software’ often means that usable hardware provides a ‘second-rate experience’ as businesses often stop developing software for older harder models. As such, it argues that manufacturers could work on extending software support for longer or ’developing lighter-weight second life firmware for older devices’ to boost the resale value of older handset models.
The report reveals that although devices have some value for up to five years after their original sale, ‘the key to maximising value and environmental benefits of reuse is to retrieve devices as early as possible’.
It argues that many people do not know what to do with an old device (for example, between 27 and 36 per cent of US consumers said they keep old devices as they “don’t know what to do with it”), businesses could address the ‘hassle factor’ of donating old devices such as phones by offering a reuse/recycling service when a contract ends, or highlighting the value of the model on marketplaces such as eBay.
Further, businesses could create software tools that diagnose the condition of hardware, thus providing increased confidence in secondhand electronic goods.
Manufacturers could then use these handsets as a replacement handset for insurance claims, for example.
The report points to WRAP data that identifies that 73 per cent of tablets requiring repairs only need battery or screen replacements, but that these devices are often discarded as they are not easily repairable.
As such, manufacturers could take into account ‘minor modularity’ such as designing devices with easily-repairable batteries and screens, thus reducing repair costs and creating stronger consumer confidence in the brand.
Green Alliance outlines that service providers and ‘less-established manufacturers’ might benefit from delegating tasks to ‘the cloud’, so that older software and hardware could be used. This might mean that a user could open files in a cloud-based platform such as Google Docs, rather than needing an app or relevant software installed on the device itself. By offering a handset and cloud computing in a service package could also benefit business by bringing in more customers, such as businesses that have a high turnover of users on the same devices.
Parts harvesting and remanufacturing
Following on from the modularity model, Green Alliance states that the improved ability to disassemble a slowly-evolving device (such as mid-range cameras) would recoup value through the reuse of components and hedge against materials risks.
Manufacturers that redesign devices to be able to use components would therefore avoid costs of producing new parts. This would be the same for remanufacturers and refurbishers.
Designing devices to make them easier for the consumer to repair, and providing information on how to do so, would extend device use thus boosting consumer confidence in a brand. The report does however note that: ‘many IT manufacturers have resisted such an approach’ with Toshiba and Apple among the companies unwilling to promote self-repair.
Boosting sales and cutting environmental impact
Speaking ahead of the report's launch, its author Dustin Benton, head of energy and resources, said: “Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are spreading the benefits of internet access across the globe. But their production is increasingly carbon intensive, and rapid upgrades mean too many good devices end up abandoned in cupboards and desk drawers, before ending up as e-waste. If companies can make reuse easier, they can boost sales and cut environmental impact.”