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Every little bit helps: How to pick the least eco-hostile laptop


White version of the Dell XPS 15 9510 laptop sitting open on a desk.
Enlarge / Dell’s XPS 15 9510.

Andrew Cunningham

Earth Day is April 22, and its usual message—take care of our planet—has been given added urgency by the challenges highlighted in the latest IPCC report. This year, Ars is taking a look at the technologies we normally cover, from cars to chipmaking, and finding out how we can boost their sustainability and minimize their climate impact.

Labeling a laptop as sustainable, eco-friendly, or “green” is optimistic at best. The apparently endless cycle of upgrades produces a lot of waste, no matter how many green certifications a device gets. We have a long way to go.

But while all laptops contribute to waste, some do so more or less than others. Many people simply need a laptop, so abstaining from the whole thing isn’t an option. But there are some small victories to be won if you spend some time considering the options.

As we close out April and draw the Earth Day festivities to a close, let’s quickly go over the basics of making sustainability a part of our laptop purchasing decisions.

Upgradable and repairable

The most essential thing to consider when shopping for a laptop with these issues in mind is upgradeability and repairability. The more ways you can upgrade the device, the longer you can go without purchasing a new machine and turning your old one into waste.

Further, the more easily you or a technician (either a third party one or one who works for the company that made the laptop) can repair it, the better. That’s because some laptops are designed in such a way that repairing or replacing one part requires destroying some other part of the machine, doubling the waste.

There are a handful of YouTube channels and websites like iFixit that essentially review products on this basis alone. The easier they are to repair without special tools or unnecessary waste, the higher a score they get.

When all else fails, you can go to Reddit or internet forums to ask existing owners what is and isn’t possible.

Responsible material sourcing

It’s an unfortunate reality that every laptop will introduce harfmul waste into the environment when it reaches the end of its life. But some are better about this than others, on two fronts.

First, some are made with more easily recyclable materials. The components could be made with materials that already come from recycling sources, and they in turn can be recycled instead of going to a landfill when you discard the laptop.

Second, consider where the materials come from. If they come from suppliers with bad environmental practices, you have a whole additional set of worries.

Laptop-makers are usually quick to proudly and loudly tout their use of recyclable materials or their reliance on suppliers that have strong practices. You’ll probably see some language about this when visiting the product page for a laptop.

And again, other sources on the internet can verify some of those claims. There are also some certification labels that give you a shorthand to go on, like TCO certification. You can additionally look at the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) for the device you’re looking to purchase.

Long-term support

Laptop-makers vary widely in how much long-term support they give to customers. You’ll want to steer clear of companies that don’t have a good track record of providing customer, software, online, or hardware support for their products over many years.

The Fairphone 4 is known for its long-term support.
Enlarge / The Fairphone 4 is known for its long-term support.

Fairphone

Steering clear of those who simply ship a product and essentially forget about it increases the chances you’ll be able to hold on to that device for longer, reducing how often you create waste. Plus, it’s good for your own bottom line and user experience, too.

Most companies offer details about their support plans for products on their websites. Compare and contrast to make sure you get a device that’s going to be supported for a while. Of course, it’s probably best to steer clear of a brand if you can’t find those details at all.

Also, product reviews on tech websites sometimes mention this aspect as well—including many of the reviews we publish at Ars Technica for certain product categories.

Sustainability reports

Some OEMS publish monthly, quarterly, or annual sustainability reports, which are often available somewhere on their websites if you really look for them.

These reports are sometimes subject to external review and may in fact accurately reflect the company’s progress or lack thereof—in other words, they’re not necessarily just spin. But head to your preferred search engine to see what reactions journalists and watchdogs may have had to the published report to be sure.



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