Why do we replace our laptops every few years?

Many companies and schools buy new laptops every four years or so. But why does this have to be the “standard” life cycle? Couldn’t it be much longer?

Since we published this article, Google has committed to extend the life of Chromebooks! Learn more about the victory here.

Many companies and schools buy new laptops every four years or so. But why does this have to be the “standard” life cycle? Couldn’t it be much longer?

We don’t replace everything this quickly. My first car had been on the road for 15 years when I trusted it with my life. Some of the tech devices I used in classrooms lasted decades. I still have my old TI-84 calculator. It’s been dropped, scraped, lost, found, stepped-on and forgotten—and it’s still working great!

Though laptops and other personal computers present unique challenges for longevity, it’s worth prolonging their use, considering the environmental and financial damage resulting from our rate of replacement.

Americans dispose of 416,000 cell phones per day, and only 15 to 20 percent of electronic waste is recycled.Photo by Morten B | Shutterstock.com

The modern tech churn hurts our environment

Churning through electronics contributes to climate change. It takes a huge amount of resources to manufacture a new laptop or phone. In fact, researchers estimate that the information technology sector is responsible for about as much climate pollution as the airline industry. Tech also requires metals such as cobalt, platinum, gold and rare earth elements. Mining for these minerals is destructive. In addition, these metals are not infinite, and at some point we’ll run out.

 

 

We don’t have the technology to take complex products such as smartphones and magically melt them back into their component parts. We might never.
An illustration of a laptop screen with a warning alert

Once we’re done using our work or school laptop, which was manufactured and shipped across the world, it gets relegated to the basement, closet or trash. Tossed devices become e-waste — our fastest growing waste stream. The World Economic Forum announced that in 2021, the global annual e-waste outweighed the Great Wall of China.

The World Economic Forum announced that in 2021, the global annual e-waste outweighed the Great Wall of China.Photo by Jakub Hałun | CC-BY-SA-4.0

We can’t recycle our way out

E-waste is especially difficult to recycle. Laptops often contain hazardous materials such as the heavy metals lead and mercury. According to the UN, “recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste.” Its report also found that just 9.4% of e-waste is recycled in the Americas. It’s not just a capacity problem. We don’t have the technology to take complex products such as smartphones and magically melt them back into their component parts. We might never.

We can’t recycle our way out of the problems caused by increasing tech manufacturing. While it’s better to recycle than not (we have reduced carbon emissions and resource usage by reclaiming materials), our priority should be making fewer devices and maximizing what we’ve already produced. 

Historians note that as Americans accumulated more disposable income, companies adopted planned obsolescence to stimulate sales.Photo by Vladyslav Huivyk | Public Domain

Laptops could last much longer

In the past, each new generation of phones or laptops offered critical upgrades. More memory, a faster processor, and the newest operating system. This quick innovation rate is often true of new technologies. However as the rate of improvement slows, consumers upgrade less frequently. For example, in 1934 the average length of car ownership had increased to five years. Historians note that as Americans accumulated more disposable income, companies adopted planned obsolescence to stimulate sales. As a result of annual style changes, by the 1950s the average length of ownership had dropped down to just two years.

Throughout much of the short history of computers, the machines’ power has doubled about every two years, while costing less, as explained by “Moore’s Law.” This model held true for many decades. However, researchers say in 2020, the speed of these technological advances started to plateau. In other words, on average, a 2019-model laptop is much like a 2023 model, whereas that 2019 model was generally much more advanced than a 2015 model.

Most of our devices, especially Chromebooks, now function as old-school terminals that access powerful cloud computing services over the internet.Photo by FlipFlopFlorida | CC-BY-2.0

We’re living in the cloud

With the trend toward people using web applications such as Google Docs, cloud storage and streaming, most of my work happens in a web browser. Chromebooks have gone even further with devices that nearly only run a web browser.

Most of our devices, especially Chromebooks, now function as old-school terminals that access powerful cloud computing services over the internet. When the first computers were the size of rooms, the terminal you typed on to send commands to the mainframe didn’t need to be constantly replaced. Today, most device users don’t require much processing or storage capacity—they’re not doing much computing per se. If Amazon or Netflix keep upgrading their cloud services, I can keep the same laptop and phone.

The Framework Laptop is repairable, upgradable and modular.Photo by Framework | Used by permission

Laptops should be upgradable like cars

With upgrades to the cloud, it ought to be easy to slow the replacement cycle for our laptops. Companies should allow commonly used parts to be shared across a range of models. Parts that wear down over time or frequently break—such as the battery, screen and keyboard—could be taken from older or broken devices and used to fix newer ones. When we do need more memory, or a faster processor, or a bigger screen, we ought to be able to buy just that component to upgrade our system.

When I need winter tires, new headlights, or a tow hitch, I don’t toss my car and buy a new one. Why should I accept a wasteful tech status quo that pressures me to buy a new laptop every four years to get an upgrade? I want my tech designed to last.

Topics
Authors

Lucas Gutterman

Director, Designed to Last Campaign, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Lucas leads PIRG’s Designed to Last campaign, fighting against obsolescence and e-waste and winning concrete policy changes that extend electronic consumer product lifespans and hold manufacturers accountable for forcing upgrades or disposal.

Find Out More
staff | TPIN

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