What Is The Carbon Footprint Of A Laptop?

What Is The Carbon Footprint Of A Laptop Header Image

More than 160 million (rising to 250 million due to COVID) new laptops are manufactured every year, making the IT industry responsible for as much greenhouse gas pollution as the entire airline industry. This equates to the IT industry contributing 2% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. 

Internet usage continues to rise, with more people using mobiles and tablets in their everyday lives. The environmental impact of IT is therefore also set to increase significantly.

As businesses and individuals, we are all starting to become aware of how our everyday activities affect the environment, and whether we can make a positive change to lower our carbon footprint.

There are some simple solutions to reducing CO2 emissions which don’t require a huge shift in process or mentality. We examine one of those solutions in this article and how you can reduce your carbon footprint by purchasing sustainable IT.

Carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide CO2 and methane CH4) of a defined activity.

How much CO2 does a laptop produce?

The average estimated carbon footprint of a laptop is around 422.5 kgs, which includes the carbon emissions during the production, transportation and first 4 years of use.

It should be noted there is a large variation in CO2 emissions depending on the manufacturer, size of laptop and how often it’s used. In all manufacturers’ estimates they suggest their CO2 could be +/- 15 to 20% due to the uncertainty of their calculations.

Carbon footprint during production of a laptop

Through our research of 230 specific laptops, we discovered the average CO2 emissions during production of a new laptop is 331kgs.

This means that just 3 new laptops produces roughly a tonne of CO2, filling around 19,000 cubic feet which is similar to filling an entire 3 bed house with CO2 equivalent.

Build – The manufacture of a laptop is between 75% – 85% of the overall carbon footprint, where the majority of emissions come from the production and materials used for the motherboard, SSD and display.

With the consideration of the CO2 emissions created as mentioned above, there are also 190,000 litres of water used and 1,200kgs of earth dug and mined. The components of a typical laptop also routinely contain mercury, lead, chromium and other heavy metals that provide power and maintain functionality. 

Shipping – Transportation is another key factor that adds to the carbon footprint of laptops, as the emissions caused by vehicles in the supply chain massively impact Scope 3 (supply chain) emission. 

The majority of emissions comes from the air transport of the laptops from the country of assembly to the country of use. Far less CO2 would be emitted if the laptop was transported via ocean or land only.

Most manufacturers state between 6% – 12% of the laptops CO2 emissions is during transportation. For the purpose of this article we’ve stated the transportation emissions as 30 kgCO2eq.

Carbon footprint during use of a laptop

To measure the carbon footprint of a laptop, we must consider the entire lifecycle which includes everyday use.

The lifetime of a laptop is estimated to be 4 years and it’s assumed that laptop is used 8 hours per day. 

The energy consumption use varies quite significantly, and most manufactures state that estimates are uncertain. Nonetheless, for the laptops we remanufacture, HP has the lowest footprint during use, around 32 kgCO2eq and the Lenovo T450 has the highest at 91 kgCO2eq.

For our calculations of overall carbon footprint we used the median figure 61.5 kgCO2eq.

Indirect carbon footprint concerns

Whilst this article has focused on the direct use of laptops, it’s important to understand that using the internet has its own carbon emission issues. Browsing online is not 100% green and the ‘Cloud’ is actually large data centres that require a great deal of energy to power and cool down. 

End of life of a laptop

It’s very important we keep the laptop’s end of life on the agenda because of the environmental impact it creates, as we’ve discussed here. However, in terms of carbon footprint, the reported CO2 emissions are negligible from almost every manufacturer. 

Most report a 1 or <1 kgCO2eq from recycling the laptop and do not include it on their carbon footprint report.

How businesses can reduce their IT carbon footprint

As we have now established, the biggest contributor to the carbon footprint of a laptop is during the manufacturing process. 

So, what if we could remove that CO2 impact of buying a new laptop and purchase another way? Without doing anything else, this would help reduce the carbon footprint of buying a laptop by 85%.

Alternatives to buying new – Circular Computing remanufactured laptops

‘Remanufactured’ laptops are new to the technology world as we have developed this process over the recent years. The term was coined as it reflected what we do – rebuild the used laptops to deliver a performance that is truly comparable to new.

We re-use all parts that are not defective and give the device a new look – rebuilt and refinished; inside and out. We replace or upgrade selected components to deliver unrivalled quality.

Five trees are planted for every Circular Computing™ laptop to help compensate for the ‘embodied’ carbon emissions from its original manufacture and first three years of use.

View our sustainable IT calculator to see the positive impact you could make by procuring remanufactured laptops instead of new.

How to lower the carbon footprint of a laptop

There are a number of steps we can take to lower the carbon footprint of our laptops at work or home.

Turn off when not in use – Your laptop and monitors do not need to be on when they are not in use. A simple solution but make sure you power off and shut down overnight and at the weekend.

Manage the laptops power plan – The built in power options will mean the laptop can go into sleep or shutdown if left unresponsive for a certain amount of time. Other simple ways of lowering the power output is to lower the brightness level on your screen and turn off screen savers.

Try to fix – Instead of buying a new laptop as soon as something goes wrong, you should try to extend the life of the laptop by getting it repaired.

Recycle – If it is time to replace your laptop, consider sending it to a dedicated IT recycling program -they will quite often pay you for the machine. Your other option could be offering the laptop to a charity who will pass it on to schools or individuals who need it. 

Are laptops more environmentally friendly than desktops?

In comparison with the larger desktops, laptops have a smaller ecological footprint during their lifespan, but they can still potentially cause environmental damage if not managed properly when they become obsolete or unusable. The smaller size and compact nature of laptops translates into a less significant impact on natural resources than that of a comparable desktop for example. 

Additionally, laptops use significantly less energy owing to fewer components, built-in monitors and efficient CPUs that extend battery life. For example, with moderate use, desktops can use from 60 to 194 watts of energy per day. Laptops, on the other hand, burn from 19 to 60 watts when used at a moderate activity level, resulting in up to 90 percent less energy use.  

Interestingly, laptops are more sustainable than devices such as smartphones as they have a significantly longer lifespan. People often keep laptops for 4 or 5 years, whereas it is common to upgrade a smartphone within two years, on average. 

Laptops are not the worst offender, in terms of carbon footprint. But how they are produced matters, from the planetary resources required to do so, to their ‘final’ destination when they become obsolete is very important. 

Examining all the alternatives, especially remanufacturing, is essential when purchasing a laptop. Its impact on the planet is a key factor in today’s rush to be carbon neutral. 

It is an achievable goal to purchase a truly carbon neutral laptop and there are real alternatives to buying new. What was once a daunting prospect is no longer the case.  

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