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Policy in practice: reducing the digital divide by improving the circular economy of digital devices

Computers are essential for social and economic development. They are crucial to running modern businesses and play an essential role in education. However, extractivism, manufacturing, use and abuse, and premature recycling is causing many negative impacts on people and the planet. According to the ITU-T, by 2030, the ICT industry must radically reduce its environmental footprint to half of what it was in 2015. However, we are facing the opposite trend: it seems that, by 2040, ICT-related emissions will account for 14% of global emissions due to consumption increases. At the same time, extractivism and manufacturing are associated with several human rights violations, while not all the citizens benefit from ICT: nearly 4 billion people still do not have the option to access ICT products and services.

Keeping already manufactured products in use is critical in a circular economy, both for eco-efficiency and sufficiency. Reusing an electronic device avoids the manufacture of another device. Furthermore, reusing has an environmental advantage since no more new natural resources are needed, breaking the linear economy logic. Energy use is essential to consider in the whole computer life cycle, but that comes not only from the device but also from network services used. Moreover, preparation for reuse can be a source of income and direct or indirect job creation. It can also create more affordable markets for everyone and the planet, as long as second-hand products can replace new products.

Since 2003, eReuse ecosystems (circuits) have collected, refurbished and manufactured thousands of decommissioned computers from public and private institutions for second-hand use. In 2016, the Barcelona City Council decided to support the Barcelona eReuse ecosystem by donating their decommissioned devices. Together we developed policies and practices in compliance with legal and operational standard procedures (secure data wipe, remanufacturing and other needs of the reverse supply chain). Near 50 Catalan companies and other regional municipalities followed that example. As a result, by mid-2020, we have produced an open dataset of devices and parts, including near 20 thousand computers.

With our open-source software tools and traceability until the final recycling of the devices, we have enough data for a preliminary analysis of the ecosystems’ regenerative capacities and evaluation of the environmental, social and economic impact of reusing devices. Thanks to this experience, we have drawn some preliminary conclusions, especially regarding public policies in different European locations, as a result of sharing and discussion of experiences and policy mechanisms with other European stakeholders (Amsterdam Allemaal-digitaal, Digital Inclusion, Computer Aid, Sant Boi and Getafe city councils in Spain, or Kiel city council in Germany). This has helped us identify critical impact factors and modify some contractual conditions with our donor partners. As a result, we can conclude that, although reusing a device has almost always a positive environmental impact, the economic benefit/cost balance, both for the entities of a reuse ecosystem and the consumer, is not always positive; nor is the social impact.

Nowadays, our contracts and templates to facilitate device reuse inspire and help policymakers to i) transfer the ownership of devices with different types of clauses related to property rights, ii) regulate what type of electronic devices can be donated based on what the circuit considers to have a positive value, iii) to regulate circular and social impacts by specifying end-user target segments, iv) to identify target refurbishing organisations with proven impact accounting, and v) to obtain traceability, data integrity, and impact reports over a process with multiple owners and possessors through a distributed ledger.

Finally, the report summarises how policymakers can influence the acquisition, use, reuse, and recycling of electronic devices through sustainable public procurement, circular use, repair/reuse, and circular post-use practices.

Mireia Roura, David Franquesa, Leandro Navarro, and Roc Meseguer Distributed Systems Group at UPC, Report design by: Emma Charleston
Supported by the NGI Forward project.

pip report