Community Waste

Extended Warranties Prevent E-Waste

WashU Information Technology’s most recent change to Dell computer warranties marks an important step forward in managing the university’s electronic waste and changing campus culture to one of repair and reuse, instead of replacement. With the world producing around fifty million tons of e-waste a year, changes in warranty length can go a long way in keeping electronics in our hands and out of landfills.

WashU IT makes strides in preserving the university’s computer fleet

In September 2020, Information Technology announced that, moving forward, WashU-owned Dell computers would be transitioning from three-year to five-year warranties. This announcement will affect faculty and staff who receive Dell laptops provided through WashU’s centralized computer procurement though it does not apply to devices already purchased or in use. The change comes at a time when we are more reliant on computers than ever to work and connect. Jason Smith, Chief Information Officer at the WashU School of Medicine, explained that the change in warranty length solved three intersecting issues. “We were looking for ways to achieve the following objectives: providing better device value to our users, reducing the frequency of devices needing replacement, and cutting down on the overall devices being disposed of.”

Though a warranty extension may sound like a small change, it has a far-reaching sustainability impacts. Warranties are guarantees that if a device breaks or shows signs of deterioration within a certain timespan, the manufacturer is responsible for its repair or replacement. “Warranties are utilized on a very regular basis,” said Smith. “Having strong warranties in place allows us to more quickly resolve hardware issues as we are provided free replacement parts and, in some cases, a completely new device depending on the issues the device is having.”

Not only does this resolve technology malfunctions faster, but it goes a long way in reducing our collective e-waste. Warranties push back against the planned obsolescence strategy that encourages the rapid consumption of new products by valuing repair over replacement. While many new products are marketed as better or more advanced than the previous generation, they often have artificial lifespans created by cheap production that facilitate buying of the next in a line of products. Warranties shift the responsibility back to the manufacturer and encourages better design, since producers do not want to spend extra money constantly repairing poorly-made electronics.

The true cost of electronic devices

The lifespan of electronics reaches far beyond their disposal. Computers and other electronic devices have lots of rare and toxic materials hiding behind their screens, metals like gold, copper, lead, mercury, cadmium, and lithium. The mining required to harvest these rare metals destroys the local environment through, among other methods, habitat destruction, topsoil loss, and contamination of local water sources.  Along with environmental degradation, mining is a notoriously dangerous industry for its workers, who often suffer under low wages, poor safety precautions, and a demanding pace that values the consumer’s convenience over worker health.

The recycling process of electronics bears resemblance to the mining of their materials. The dumping of old tech can be deadly for the communities that take on recycling them, as many devices are sent to informal recycling centers that endanger local environments and workers. In many recycling operations, no protective gear is provided to workers, even when they are expected to break open devices by hand or brave the toxic fumes released by burning old devices. It should come as no surprise that many of these recycling centers are located in third-world countries where labor is cheaper and easier to exploit. While we can forget about our old electronics as soon as they leave our hands, the people in charge of recycling them have to face long-term, life-threatening health consequences like premature births, lung issues, birth deformities, and increased lead levels. (Note: WashU’s electronics are recycled through a certified ewaste recycler, which ensures reuse where possible, and responsible deconstruction and recycling otherwise. When disposing of personal ewaste, it is important to seek options for responsible recycling through a certified demanufacturer.)

Extend the life of your electronics!

Treating our electronics better can extend their lives for as long as possible, effectively reducing e-waste. Below are a few best practices to extend the life of your electronics:

  1. Keep it safe! Though it may sound obvious, being aware of how and where you store your devices can make a big impact on how long they function. Frequently dropping them or leaving them in harm’s way creates minor accidents that build up and hurt your computer’s long-term performance.
  2. Update your software. Having a fast-running computer will decrease the need for a new model and keep the operating system spry.
  3. Clean your hardware. Dust and other gunk can slip through the cracks of your keyboard and into its processing system, overheating the device. Being mindful of what you eat near your laptop, limiting what kinds of materials you expose it to, and treating it to semi-regular cleanings can protect its functionality.
  4. Give it a cool down. We often rest computers on blankets or other surfaces that do not provide the ventilation it needs, overworking the fans and overheating the device. This can happen even when you simply set your device in direct sunlight for an extended period of time. Making sure you are only using the programs you need, keeping it in the shade, and stepping away when it overheats helps it keep chugging.
  5. Let it die, for a bit. This tip may seem counterintuitive, but draining your battery can actually help your computer in the longrun. Each laptop has a specific number of charge cycles and are meant to operate on battery power. Check out this great WashU IT article about how and when to let your computer rest.

Upcoming E-Waste Recycling & Light Bulb Swap Event

WashU employees and students are able to responsibly recycle personal electronics (anything with a cord) and two collection events this fall, on October 29 and November 5, from 7:30AM to 10:30AM. Visit the event announcement for more information and to RSVP.

Further Learning:

This article was written by Natalie Snyder, Communication Associate at the Office of Sustainability.