Electronic waste at a landfill site

Reducing the e-waste mountain: how to buy IT sustainably

Scottish Government,

6 minute read

E-waste is growing at an alarming rate globally. The Scottish government has designed new frameworks to encourage more sustainable buying.

The problem

Electronic waste or ‘e-waste’ creates a particular dilemma for governments: regulating how it is disposed of while at the same time producing thousands of tonnes of it themselves.

In Scotland, the public sector buys 170,000 electronic devices including laptops, PCs and mobile phones each year, equivalent to over 400 a day.

Although reuse and recycling have improved, this level of consumption creates both environmental and reputational risks.

In 2015 the Scottish Government launched a Green ICT strategy to manage the risks and ensure compliance with UK and EU requirements on sustainable buying.

The task for procurement officers was to implement the policy across a vast IT estate, while continuing to deliver value for money for taxpayers.

Manufacturing a sustainable product is not just about which product uses the most recycled content or is the easiest to recycle. It is the whole life cycle of the product that tells us if it is truly sustainable.

Stephen Fuller, Expert on Social Responsibility, TCO Certified

The approach

Firstly, the Scottish authorities used early market engagement to inform suppliers of the policy and work together on how to deliver it.

This included the establishment of a 'User Intelligence Group' of stakeholders. Regular conference calls and face-to-face meetings were held with industry experts, major manufacturers, resellers and other organisations within the supply chain.

Suppliers were asked how they would:

  • reduce toxicity levels in products
  • minimise packaging
  • ensure carbon neutral transport of goods
  • trace supply chains, to help rule out human rights abuses

Discussions revealed that of the seven categories of device that the government bought, each required a different approach in managing e-waste.

For example, a mobile phone, which contains potentially hazardous lithium-ion batteries, needs to be disposed of differently from a desktop computer, containing lead, PVC and other toxins.

The Scottish Government's ICT Product portfolio, split into 7 categories © Scottish Government

To prevent cupboards overflowing with unused keyboards and cables, flexible buying plans were proposed, including the option to buy a PC without peripherals. For devices that could not be upgraded such as tablets, suppliers looked into how they could recycle components.

As well as investigating the devices themselves, research was also carried out into how to make government offices smarter - for example, allowing remote access to servers for home-workers and switching to lightweight, scaled-down versions of traditional PCs, known as ‘thin clients’.

Shifting the risks and responsibilities around disposal, carbon reduction and supply chain monitoring to suppliers would mean a considerable investment.

To compensate for this, the government offered providers the chance to compete for multi-year contracts, worth up to £250m (US$310m). Each device would have its own framework, awarded to a single supplier through open competition.

There’s no point devising requirements without knowing the market can meet them. We have to ask 'is this viable?' from a supplier point of view.

Lee Rutherford, Scottish Procurement and Property Directorate

The results

In 2016 the new frameworks were published through the Scottish government’s e-Procurement platform. Contracts were offered on an initial 2-year basis, with the option to extend a further 2 years.

The number of bidders varied by device, ranging from 4 to 7. Bids were evaluated using a scoring system, with social, ethical and environmental factors making up 20% of the total.

Given the scale and length of the contracts, suppliers were able to offer devices significantly below market rates, representing total savings of £100 million (US$124m).

Aside from lower cost, the single-supplier route offered environmental benefits including:

  • energy efficiency and environmental accreditation were built in as a minimum requirement
  • supply chain data could be published openly, meeting human rights requirements
  • a commitment to extend the useful life of devices through upgrading components
  • a buy back scheme for devices that cannot be upgraded such as tablets
  • a reduction in packaging, with devices supplied unboxed and set up by suppliers

More IT hardware will be needed to enable home-working in response to the Covid-19 pandemic

Next Steps

The Covid-19 pandemic has meant more PCs and laptops need to be bought urgently to support home working and learning. The Scottish government recently spent £9 million on 25,000 laptops for schools under emergency buying legislation.

At the same time, iPads, Chromebooks and broadband routers were being sent to 9,000 people on low incomes through the Connecting Scotland initiative.

The challenge for governments across the world will be to ensure that sustainable IT buying is prioritised during the pandemic to avoid more e-waste blighting the environment.

Three things we learnt

  • e-waste needs to be regulated and reduced to meet sustainability targets
  • early consultation allows government to tackle e-waste together with suppliers
  • frameworks need to be tailored to the particular technology being bought