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Some thoughts on circular economy and IT procurement


This week, the European Commission is organising the 2nd annual conference of the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform under the title “Delivering on the Circular Economy – What’s Next?”. One of the focuses of the discussion will concern the IT sector, and this post aims to raise some issues for further thought. In particular, this post aims to increase awareness of the potential for “re-use” and the purchasing of refurbished or remanufactured IT products.

Approximately 160 million new laptops are made every year, and 160,000 are disposed of every day in the EU alone. That’s 3 million tons of IT equipment waste. The result is excessive resource consumption, climate change, conflict mining, human rights issues, pollution and e-waste. Yet, some estimates indicate that some 70% of those laptops could be reused. The general trend is likely to be the same for desktop computers and other IT products, so there seems to be significant scope for effective circular economy efforts in this area.

Moreover, it seems uncontroversial that the rules in the 2014 Public Procurement Package allow for the inclusion of technical specifications that facilitate the use of refurbished or remanufactured IT products. Indeed, the European Commission has published green public procurement criteria (EU GPP criteria) for both computers and monitors, and for imaging equipment (eg printers, copiers and multifunctional devices). However, the uptake of procurement of refurbished or remanufactured IT products is still low.

The immediate questions (or concerns) that can come to mind for a public buyer considering whether to allow for (or even prefer, through adequate award criteria) refurbished or remanufactured IT products, will probably relate to functional/performance equivalence between refurbished and new products, as well as life span/warranty of refurbished or remanufactured products compared to new ones. These are valid concerns, so it is worth assessing some of the evidence.

Regarding quality, it is worth stressing that the commonly accepted definition of “remanufactured products” covers products that are equal to or better than new, with a warranty equal to or better than new. For most suppliers, circular computing products come with same as new warranty for a period of 3 years. And this can be independently certified through compliance with relevant standards, such as the British BS8887 standard, under ISO 90001, 14001 processes, all of which can be audited.

In terms of performance, there is now emerging evidence of comparability between new and remanufactured IT products. For example, Cranfield University made a like for like comparison between some remanufactured models and some of today’s newer equivalent models and the remanufactured products tested to perform on average to within 3% of new products.

Lifespan may be an additional consideration, and here it is more difficult to find public data. However, there are good indications that lifespan can be largely comparable and, in any case, adequate warranty clauses and in-use maintenance agreements can help public buyers place any risks derived from increased replacement needs, if any, on the circular IT supplier.

Therefore, the evidence starts to strongly suggest that remanufactured or refurbished IT products should be considered a functionally equivalent option for public buyers from a technical perspective. This raises the question whether low uptake responds to non-technical considerations, which are observed in consumer markets. Indeed, in consumer markets, the low uptake of refurbished and remanufactured products (not only IT) has been shown to derive from misconceptions about the quality and reliability of those products. Maybe it is time for public buyers to question whether their own assumptions are equally unfounded, and to establish IT procurement strategies that are not skewed towards new products.