As government agencies move closer to their sustainability goals, adopting circular economic principles could be an advantage, especially with technology investments
As states and federal agencies adopt sustainability goals to mitigate the impacts of climate change, government technology merits a closer look. The rapid obsolescence of technology and the associated generation of electronic waste (e-waste) are areas where policy and government procurement decisions could make a meaningful impact — and adopting circular economic principles could help.
Shifting from linear to circular economies
Circular economic principles differ from the more standard linear economic process of take, make & dispose, and instead focus on adding value for customers through the entire product lifespan. Instead of centering strictly on reducing or abating the generation of carbon or other greenhouse gases, a circular economy reimagines waste as a new resource. Linear economies focus very little on the reuse or repurposing of products, whereas circular economies are centered on product reuse — rather than disposal.
A 2021 Presidential Executive Order on federal sustainability initiatives established a goal for federal agencies to minimize waste, advance pollution prevention, support markets for recycled products, and promote a transition to a circular economy. Specific benchmarks for this order note landfill diversion of at least 50% of non-hazardous solid wastes by 2025 and 75% by 2030.
Technology is nearly universal in government service delivery, and managers can relate to the inherent challenges in retiring and replacing old technology. The Victoria (Australia) State Government developed guidelines and an Application Lifecycle Rating matrix to help government officials identify which technology and programs are candidates for retirement and when to begin the transition process. Older software programs may pose integration issues, have limited vendor support or warranty provisions, and may exacerbate hiring challenges as legacy programs may not be a match for employee skills in the marketplace. Legacy systems also may pose cybersecurity threats or be poorly suited to be adapted to the changing needs of some government agencies or organizations.
Government leaders understand the importance of investing in tools and systems that allow for future growth, and which are modular in nature. Modular systems allow you to add on or expand in the future as your organization grows or its needs shift. Even before the global pandemic, for example, the IT Director for the City of Las Vegas noted that the organization struggled to keep pace with the demand for more connections and hardware. Similarly, the Sacramento Public Library found that while it had in the past simply upgraded with its previous technology vendor, a new bidding process was exploring relationships with new vendors and sourcing products that better suited the library’s current and future needs.
E-waste from technology obsolescence
Many technological devices simply aren’t built for longevity. The average laptop has a high likelihood of breaking within 3-4 years, and software upgrades make it increasingly difficult to utilize older models of smartphones. We exist in a technological mirage in which we buy new, but we don’t have to see the climatological impact of the upgrade-and-replace life cycle. It may be good to know, however, that 85% to 95% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint comes from the manufacturing process — in particular, the mining of rare earth elements for these devices. Mining of these elements is a dirty business, being highly toxic and damaging to local ecosystems. Lithium — the element in virtually every device battery — is often referred to as gray gold in reference to the unregulated labor practices, kidnapping, human trafficking, and violent conflict involved in the mining of this element.
Once a device is replaced, e-waste must be managed. E-waste generation globally has increased by 21% in the past decade, and it is estimated that just 12% of smartphone upgrades involve older devices being sold or traded-in for a new one. The United Nations has identified e-waste as one of the fastest growing waste streams, estimating that only 17.4% of e-waste globally is formally collected and recycled. Harmful elements — as many as 69 separate elements from the periodic table — can be found in electrical and electronic devices, particularly mercury, cadmium, and lead.
Why are we cycling through devices more quickly? Trends in edge-to-edge glass on phone and tablet screens mean that devices are increasingly breakable. Other causes include: intentional design elements such as batteries being glued in place; the use of proprietary screws in device cases to prevent opening; more sophisticated techniques such as slowing down older devices to spur replacement; and using federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security to block independent repair shops from accessing replacement parts. Device manufacturers have gone to great lengths to ensure that individuals are more likely to replace rather than repair their devices.
Circular economic principles in practice
Due to their scale and leverage, government agencies have a unique opportunity to push for better environmental outcomes in their technology procurement including the ability to repair and increase device longevity and compatibility.
Some ways government agencies can make a difference by:
- exploring bundled services that include devices, software, wi-fi, and a guarantee of a minimum battery life, as well as allow for older hardware to be used, including refurbished devices;
- considering product lifespan in procurement decisions and, whenever possible, aim to purchase products that can accommodate in-house repairs;
- prioritizing software systems that are modular in design and can be expanded upon in the future; and
- engaging in competitive bidding processes to continuously seek out vendors that follow best environmental practices in procuring hardware and software.
Procurement decisions involving systems (software) and devices (hardware) that are made by government agencies are an important part of shifting away from a disposable culture to one that values waste as a resource. Extending the lifespan of both software and hardware and ensuring that when devices are retired that they are recycled responsibly further reduces the need for new raw materials, reduces e-waste generation, and opens up economic opportunity. Research estimates that $4.5 trillion in additional economic growth could be generated by 2030 through the advancement of circular economic principles.