What is the circular economy — and why is it an urgent priority for IT products?

Our current linear consumption model is breaking our planet’s boundaries, damaging fragile ecosystems and causing the loss of valuable natural resources. Shifting to a circular economy is a way of building a brighter and more sustainable future.

Today’s dominating economic model is linear: We take natural resources and make products from them which we then discard once we’re done using them. This short-term mindset leads to a number of problems.

  • Virgin materials are extracted at a faster rate than they can be replenished.
  • Planned obsolescence: products are often designed for a short usable life and are difficult to repair and upgrade.
  • Once discarded, products are treated as waste and are often incinerated or placed in landfill, leading to hazardous substances leaching to soil, water and air and the loss of valuable and scarce natural resources.

Reserves of some natural resources are already running low and the problem will increase as the world population grows and economic prosperity reaches more people. Unless this development stops, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. Toxic substances are found in our food, the water we drink, and in our bodies.

Resources are re-used in the circular economy

In a circular economy, resources are handled in a more responsible way, while also maintaining their high value use. The goal is to extend product lifetime and recirculate all materials without producing any waste. Once products have reached the end of their usable life they turn into valuable resources, used to manufacture new products. The need for extracting virgin materials is therefore minimized.

Product reuse is more resource efficient than remanufacturing and recycling. Therefore, extending product lifetime is the best way of lowering its environmental impact. In a circular economy, products are built to last. They are durable and can be upgraded and repaired. They are also designed for recycling — components are easy to separate and contain no hazardous substances which make them unsuitable to use in new products.

Recycling materials is a much better alternative than incineration or landfill, but it is second best to reusing the products since most materials lose value every time they are recycled. This is also something that is considered when circular products are designed: materials which keep their value for a longer time, such as metals are preferred to plastics, which is more difficult to recycle.

Innovation and new business models

The circular economy also means new ways of doing business. Economic activity is gradually decoupled from the consumption of finite resources and instead, new and innovative business models and concepts are introduced. Instead of consumer ownership, offerings can be service based, often referred to as “product as a service” business models. Products are shared, leased and used and jobs are created in the repair and maintenance of those products throughout their usable life.

What you can do

Use the products you buy for a longer time period – even adding another year gives substantial sustainability benefits.

Regard the components and materials of IT products as valuable resources, never to be discarded.

Don’t just look at the sales price — a more expensive product may be cheaper to maintain, which saves money in the long term.

View the contents of products as valuable resources, never to be discarded

How TCO Certified contributes to the circular economy

TCO Certified drives the development of products that are durable, repairable and upgradeable, making them more attractive for reuse or secondary markets, as well as and recyclable. A full chapter in the criteria document focuses on product lifetime extension.

  • Criteria cover all phases of the product life cycle: material sourcing and manufacturing; use and re-use; recovery and recycling.
  • IT products are often replaced because the battery has lost its ability to hold a charge. TCO Certified includes criteria for battery life and replaceability.
  • Certified products must have at least one year’s warranty and spare parts must be available for at least three years after the product model is no longer manufactured.
  • The brand owner must provide software which deletes data from the device securely and free of charge, so that the product can be recirculated without risk of data leakage.
  • Plastics must be coded to enable recycling.
  • Mobile products must be durable and endure high and low temperatures.
  • To remain functional for a long time, products must be repairable and upgradeable.
  • Products must include an USB Type-C port. By using a standardized connector, fewer cables need to be manufactured and re-use of cables can increase.
  • By reducing the number of hazardous substances, materials can be safely recycled and reused for a long time to come, and maintain compliance with increasingly stricter legislation.
  • The brand owner is responsible for offering take-back options at end of life.

TCO Certified är världens mest omfattande hållbarhetscertifiering för IT-produkter. Certifieringen hjälper dig att göra ansvarsfulla produktval som driver på industrin i en hållbar riktning. Genom att använda TCO Certified kan din organisation ta ett kliv framåt inom social och miljömässig hållbarhet.

Andra hållbarhetsrisker kopplade till IT-produkter
Conflict minerals used in IT products drive wars and human rights abuses
Social and environmental challenges in the IT product supply chain
Hazardous substances in IT products — a human health and environmental risk
A growing, toxic waste stream where valuable finite resources are lost
Sources of information