Long live the laptops! - How ecodesign can prevent premature obsolescence

 07 Laptop

The international network ECOS aims to influence the development of ambitious standardisation, legislation and political strategies to promote the transition to a clean and circular economy that respects planetary boundaries. ECOS promotes and defends environmental interests in the development of standards at European and international level, as well as in the development of environmental product policies. A recently published report shows that the EU ecodesign and energy labelling regulatory instruments have a great potential to contribute to the reversal of the current throwaway culture, double laptop lifetimes.

The main obstacles to a prolonged lifespan of computers of laptops include dwindling battery life, reduced ability to cope with the latest technology, the inability to upgrade for improved performance levels, as well as difficulty in repairing the device in the case of component failure. 

 Based on the report, the main obstacles are outlined below, followed by recommendations on how to best address them  

Robustness

  • Obstacles
  • Numbers
  • Solutions
  • Obstacles
  • Numbers
  • Solutions
  • Strenuous use due to the portable nature
  • One third of all laptops fail within 3 years. Of these failures, around two thirds are due to hardware malfunction, and one third are due to accidental damage. (source)

  • Rugged designs
    (rubberised bodies, spill resistant keyboards, and strengthened displays within the slimmer form of a conventional laptop, resistance to dust, water and high temperatures, easy to disassemble with simple tools)

    Better design can reduce the likelihood of these kinds of failures while still ensuring the repairability of the product.

Repair & Upgrade possibilities

  • Obstacles
  • Numbers
  • Solutions
  • Obstacles
  • Numbers
  • Solutions
  • Battery performance and the ability to replace batteries are key limitations for laptops

    The potential to upgrade components for higher energy efficiency or performance

    Repair of faulty parts
    - Majority of battery and screen-related repairs are much more difficult to execute without easy access to spare parts and modular designs
    - Spare parts are often expensive or unavailable
    - Repair instructions are difficult
    - To access, labour time necessary for repair results in prohibitive costs, or the time period necessary for a repair (or for a spare part to be delivered) is too long for the user.

    Replacement of data-sensitive components in high security environments

  • Upgradeability is found to be a relevant consideration in around half of computer purchases. (source: FORSA 2013 referenced in JRC, 2018)

    About a quarter of new laptop sales are motivated by the belief that the old laptop did not have enough functions. (source)

    One out of three failed repair attempts was the lack of repair information. (source)

    Preliminary research of community repair data indicates that the top three types of faults in laptops relate to performance (when a laptop becomes very slow, normally due to software issues), power storage and integrated screens. (source)

  • Modularity of key parts
    Key parts should be designed to be easily and individually removed with basic tools. The ability to replace the battery in particular is critical to ensure laptop longevity.

    Maximum time for disassembly
    In order to make repair and parts harvesting easier, a maximum time for disassembly for priority parts should be specified by law.

    Repair information
    Repair instructions should therefore be made publicly available, and include an exploded diagram locating the parts and explaining how they can be changed.

    Capping the costs of spare parts
    Make key spare parts available at a fair price, which could be specified as less than a certain percentage of the original sales price

    Capping the time for spare part delivery and warranty repair
    A maximum delivery time of one week for spare parts should be introduced.

    User information on repair and durability
    Providing consumers with point-of-sale information on the durability and reparability of laptops, as well as the length of additional free warranty periods.
    Whenever repair of any of the key parts is not possible, manufacturers should be obliged to declare this.

    Battery optimisation
    At the very least they should be required to function at 80% capacity after 300 charging cycles, and design should be adapted to ensure their easy replacement at the end of life. In addition, pre-installed battery optimisation software could extend the battery lifetime by up to 50%.

Software / Firmware

  • Obstacles
  • Solutions
  • Obstacles
  • Solutions
  • Software is continually evolving. This slows down older devices over time until eventually they are unable to operate effectively.

  • Guaranteed update availability

    Lightweight software and firmware options Lightweight versions of software and firmware should be made available to adapt to lower specification devices whilst optimising performance. For example, some non-core features, such as visual transitions, might not be made available in a lightweight version.

    Pre-installation user information Software and firmware providers should be obliged to inform users on how the installation of new software (especially operating system updates) will impact their devices. Users should have the option not to install new software or operating systems that will undermine the performance of their device.

    Software installation and usage clinics Manufacturers could offer a service to help users tailor their software and firmware installations and settings to ensure best performance.

Refurbishment / Reuse

  • Obstacles
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  • Obstacles
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  • Solutions
  • Absence of an easy way to erase and reset data is an important reason for which laptops are frequently denied a second life

  • Remanufactured models can retain substantial value for a number of premium brands. For example, remanufactured MacBook computers are sometimes sold for 70 to 90% of their initial price. (source)

    68% of Americans have held onto an old laptop for two years or more without using it. (source)

  • Diagnosis and factory reset tools
    To increase confidence in the quality of second-hand devices, a software tool could be made available to automatically evaluate the used laptop for aspects such as memory errors, battery cycle status or water damage.

    Data deletion tools

    Apps to facilitate second-hand markets

    Easier parts harvesting
    Modular designs are important also to enable the harvesting of parts for reuse in instances where repair is not possible. Such harvesting can be facilitated by quality standards for reused and remanufactured parts

    Interoperability of chargers
    Standardised designs that enable power supplies to be used with different laptops, and by shipping devices without the charger.

Fashion trends

  • Obstacles
  • Numbers
  • Solutions
  • Obstacles
  • Numbers
  • Solutions
  • Consumers are often encouraged to replace their device with the newest model due to the availability of desirable new functionalities, which cannot be obtained via adjustments to their existing device

  • 45% of German consumers claim to have replaced their devices simply because “there is a new model on the market” (source)

    Outdated aesthetics can thus present a barrier to the reuse and remanufacturing of older products - a fifth of respondents in Europe are deterred from purchasing second-hand products because they usually look less appealing. (source)

  • Swappable aesthetics

    Revised extended producer responsibility requirements
    to include fee variations based on the repairability and durability of the product in question

    Product as service models
    For example, a consumer could pay for a service package of network connectivity and laptop functions (including software packages, storage capacity, software load times and battery duration). Tiers of service could enable laptops that are no longer desirable on a premium contract to be reused on a more basic contract. Green Public Procurement offers a key opportunity to pilot the use of this type of alternative business solution.

    Tax breaks for repair and alternative business models
    tax reductions, exemptions or other fiscal incentives should be offered at the national level for both repair activities and product-as-a-service approaches, in order to stimulate the uptake of novel business models