Dear EarthTalk: Is buying refurbished electronics better for the planet than buying brand new ones? ~ Peter Behr, Chicago, IL
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the world produces some 50 million tons of electronic waste each year, and the figure is increasing. Meanwhile, only 20 percent of this electronic waste is disposed of properly. The remaining 80 percent is either sent to landfills, incinerated or illegally traded, resulting in a host of environmental problems including groundwater pollution, reduced air quality and the depletion of virgin natural resources to replace discarded items. As a result, buying refurbished electronics is a step in the right direction.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that buying refurbished electronics can significantly reduce the environmental impact of electronic waste. The EPA estimates that for every million smartphones that are refurbished and reused, approximately 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. This is a considerable number of valuable resources that can be conserved by buying refurbished electronics.
Refurbishing electronics not only conserve resources but also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 50 percent, according to the EPA. This is because the production of new electronics requires a lot of energy, and greenhouse gas emissions are generated during the manufacturing process. “Most of the pollution that’s made actually is in the manufacturing of the device, not the use,” says Lucas Gutterman of the non-profit public interest group, U.S. PIRG. “So buying refurbished and using things for as long as we possibly can, really helps protect the environment.”
Buying refurbished is also good for the pocketbook, given that they cost less. But is the savings worth it? Refurbished items sold by reputable retailers undergo tests and inspections to ensure that they meet the same quality standards as new items. According to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), a trade association for the consumer electronics industry, buyers should look for refurbished electronics that come with a warranty that assures that the item has been thoroughly vetted and is of high quality.
“Some credit card companies will extend coverage on refurbished goods, too, as long as they come with a preexisting warranty,” notes Consumer Reports’ Yael Grauer. Another smart consumer tip is to always check the return policy on a refurbished item before hitting the “buy” button. “It might take you a little while to notice poor performance and defects in a refurbished product, so it helps to have at least one month to decide whether you want to keep it,” adds Grauer.
Apple, Dell, Amazon, Walmart and BestBuy are among the large companies that sell many refurbished electronics with limited warranties and a return policy. Dozens of other smaller resellers (e.g., Refurb.io, Gazelle, TechForLess, RefurbMe, etc.) also specialize in refurbished products and typically offer similar if not better terms for consumers. “Buying refurbished products positively impacts the environment by boosting the circular economy, lowering the replacement cycle, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, avoiding additional e-waste, and reducing energy and fuel consumption,” says Simo Elalj of RefurbMe. “You do this by giving a new life to a pre-owned device.”
Dear EarthTalk: Is Tesla the world’s greenest large company given its product line, use of renewable energy and innovations in manufacturing efficiency? ~ Tim M., Fairfield, CT
While it’s hard to say which large company is the world’s “greenest,” Tesla, known for its electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy solutions as well as for promoting sustainability and reducing environmental impact, certainly would be one of the contenders for such a title.
Tesla’s product line, which includes electric cars and trucks, energy storage systems, solar panels and roof tiles, and now even green tiny homes, aims to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation and energy production. By promoting the adoption of EVs, Tesla seeks to contribute to reducing air pollution and addressing climate change.
In addition to its products, Tesla has also made efforts to use renewable energy in its operations. For example, the company has built large-scale solar energy installations and has invested in solar panel manufacturing. Furthermore, Tesla’s Gigafactories, which are used for manufacturing batteries and other components for EVs, are powered by renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
Tesla has also been recognized for its innovations in manufacturing efficiency, such as its use of automated production processes and advanced technologies in its factories. These efforts are aimed at optimizing energy usage, reducing waste, and improving overall environmental sustainability.
However, it’s important to note that sustainability and environmental impact are complex issues, and evaluating the “greenness” of a company requires considering various factors beyond just its product line, use of renewable energy, and manufacturing efficiency. Factors such as the entire supply chain, labor practices, waste management and social impact also play a role in determining a company’s overall sustainability performance.
So where exactly does Tesla stack up? The non-profit As You Sow ranks the pioneering EV maker at #5 on Clean200, its global list of large companies ranked according to sustainability criteria. Apple tops the list at #1, with Alphabet (parent company of Google), Deutsche Telekom AG and Verizon filling in the other top spots in front of Tesla. As You Sow updates this list every year based on the most current data on each company’s so-called “clean” revenue, that is, income derived from green, non-polluting sources.
Whether Tesla can rise above #5 next year is anybody’s guess, but it’s rise on the Clean200 list may be worth betting on given its #9 listing in 2021 followed by #6 in 2022. And this past March, Tesla shocked the business world at its 2023 Investor Day by unveiling not a newer, more affordable Tesla-for-the-masses as expected but instead a master plan to use the company’s evolving suite of products and marketing platform to help steer the world away from fossil fuels once and for all.
According to Tesla founder Elon Musk, switching over from fossil fuels to renewable energy globally would cost $10 trillion, less than the world would spend on fossil fuels over the timeframe it will take to transition. “Earth can and will move to sustainable energy, and it will do so in your lifetime,” Musk told investors.
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