The ICT sector from the perspective of the Circular Economy

Rafael Perez Medina
July 12, 2022

On average 320 tons of Gold and 7500 tons of Silver are used to build computers every year.

The history of computers is perhaps one of the shortest stories we can tell but has brought us many optimizations at various levels in a small period of time. Since the first commercially successful laptop computer (IBM 5100) the general public has had increasing access to these devices, expanding their influence and use. Today we have a total laptop market of 85.020 million units.

These devices are designed to last 3-5 years (depending on how resilient and adaptable the manufacturer makes it, also if the software can be used 5 years later becomes an issue). The programmed obsolescence is integrated in the designs of these equipment, and it was not a problem until a few years ago (although the computers were improved very quickly and Moore's law was fulfilled). The computers improved and its use became wider. This obsolescence is thought to maintain the Economies of Scale and to reduce the costs per unit when a certain volume of production is reached. It had a positive indirect consequence: the devices improved very quickly.

What happens today is that the level of detail and control over production has allowed Economies of Scale to meet the demand of more and more people to the point that e-waste has become the fastest growing waste category in recent years (about 3-4% per year (1) ), with a projection of becoming a major global problem in the coming years: Today representing about 59.1 million metric tons, expecting to become 81.6 million metric tons in 2030.

Planned obsolescence is a major contributor to this problem: OEMs, ODMs and EMSs do not design for longevity of electronic equipment. On top of this, laptops have made improvements in size, layout and component quality.

This is also a double-edged sword as the amount of materials used is significant. The waste footprint of a laptop is around 1200 kg (2), considering: Mining waste created to mine the materials needed for electronic components and other waste products.

    Seeing this situation it would be important to start considering solutions that are sustainable over time: to continue using these devices we have to use and take advantage of resources in more optimal ways, where design is thought to last and to be reused, then other business models can come into operation.

Although the Circular Economy also adds as a principle to eliminate waste, today it is difficult to eliminate it 100% and to have completely circular closed models.  Great efforts are being made on many fronts: companies and government bodies are improving their financial and industrial reporting, be more responsible with their material suppliers and develop common frameworks to address this and other situations. They are also looking to supply their ICT inventory needs with second-hand or reconditioned products as it is more cost-effective on their balance sheets.


(1) This year's e-waste to outweigh Great Wall of China

(2) Calculating the pre-consumer waste footprint: A screening study of 10 selected products

(3) Macrotrends Affecting IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) and Recycling in 2022, report: