Repairable Computers Could Help Save the Planet, Experts Say

Less waste is better

Key Takeaways

  • Dell’s new Project Luna laptop concept is designed to reduce waste by being repairable.
  • A smartphone called FairPhone is intended to be long-lasting, but it’s not yet available in the United States.
  • Observers say more needs to be done to make electronics repairable.
laptop computer lined up with computer parts

Muriel de Seze / Getty Images

Soon, you might not need to toss your old laptop in the trash. 

Dell has announced a new design concept for a laptop that has a long life and is easy to repair. Experts say repairable electronics could take less of a toll on the planet by reducing waste. 

"It feels like our society has sadly accepted that many electronics are disposable, as they can't be repaired," Amanda LaGrange, an electronics recycling advocate and CEO of Tech Dump, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

A Fixable Laptop

Dell wants to reinvent the disposable mindset with its Concept Luna design, which is intended to make repair and maintenance a breeze. 

The Luna laptop doesn’t even need screwdrivers or glue to pull off a broken keyboard or remove a cracked screen, as they simply pop off if you remove a bunch of fasteners. The design also lacks a fan and instead uses a smaller motherboard placed within so the laptop can cool itself.

Motherboards can be one of the most energy-intense components to manufacture, Glen Robson, the CTO for Dell Technologies' Client Solutions Group, wrote in the announcement. By shrinking the motherboard's total area by approximately 75 percent and component count by roughly 20 percent, the carbon footprint of the motherboard could be reduced by 50 percent, he said. 

The Luna concept also uses a new bio-based printed circuit board (PCB) made with flax fiber in the base and water-soluble polymer as the glue. The flax fiber replaces traditional plastic laminates. And the water-soluble polymer can dissolve so recyclers can more easily separate metals and components from the boards. 

"With growing concerns about the climate crisis, e-waste, and resource constraints, the question driving us is, 'What if we could push reuse to the limit and dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of our products?'" Robson wrote.

Renew, Not Dispose

China manufactures about 70 percent of laptops globally, with factories typically powered by coal, which releases high amounts of carbon emissions, according to environmental advocacy group Mossy Earth. When you factor in carbon emissions from transporting the finished device to your home, the manufacturing of just one laptop creates around 214 kilograms of CO2.

"Most modern laptops are not sustainable as they are designed to last just a few years and are hard to upgrade, meaning that when memory starts to fill up or the battery starts to give out, it is often easier and cheaper to buy a new model," Mossy Earth wrote on its website. "This short life expectancy means that e-waste is one of the largest growing waste streams globally."

"It feels like our society has sadly accepted that many electronics are disposable, as they can't be repaired."

While observers lauded Dell's Luna concept, they said that more needs to be done to make electronics repairable. 

"Dell has brilliant designers and engineers, so only having a prototype in 2021 is disappointing," LaGrange said. "Electronics manufacturers need to be capable of large-scale impact."

The list of other gadgets designed to be repaired is surprisingly short, LaGrange said. A smartphone called FairPhone is intended to be long-lasting, but it's not yet available in the United States. 

The Framework laptop is a Windows portable available for order and is designed to be fixable and upgradeable. It starts at $999 and looks similar to an Apple MacBook. 

the Framework Laptop with its keyboard removed

Framework Computer Inc

"We made the Framework Laptop convenient and cost-effective to keep working great for as long as you want it to," the company writes on its website. "The only tool you need to swap any part of it is the screwdriver we include in the box, and we publish easy-to-follow repair guides and videos." 

Microsoft recently committed to providing repair parts and manuals. Apple also has said that it would also make DIY repairs easier. 

"I'm encouraged by the momentum, and also, we have a long way to go," LaGrange said. 

Computers get replaced, on average, every three years, PA Consulting expert John Edson told Lifewire in an email interview. Highly repairable cars get almost triple that lifespan, with an average replacement at eight-and-a-half years. 

"Awareness creates change, and new products often create new awareness," Edson said.

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