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Turning old laptops into gold - how Panasonic’s Revive program cuts out e-waste

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett August 23, 2023
Summary:
Panasonic is partnering with the Royal Mint and refurbishing old Toughbooks for charities and schools

Panasonic
Rachel Pugh

We generate more than 50 million metric tons of electronic waste around the world every year; by 2030, this is predicted to increase to about 75 million metric tons. That’s a whole lot of TVs, mobile phones, laptops and fridges being dumped, most of which end up in landfill. At best, it’s estimated that 20% of these items are properly recycled, while some estimates put e-waste recycling rates as low as 12%. 

Aware of its own responsibilities as a laptop manufacturer, Panasonic launched a circularity project in April, in a bid to increase the recycling and reuse of its devices. Toughbook Revive is a core part of Panasonic’s Green Impact Plan, an initiative aimed at eliminating the equivalent of one percent of total global CO₂ emissions by 2050. 

Panasonic has long been focused on developing rugged mobile computers with sustainability at their core. Toughbooks are designed to deliver high performance for up to 10 years, and the company encourages its customers to extend their refresh lifecycle. 

Revival

The Revive program takes this a step further, offering users a way to donate their retired devices for refurbishment, resale or reuse among selected charity partners, or have it responsibly recycled. Rachael Pugh, Partner Marketing and Enablement, Panasonic Toughbook, explains:

We knew that there's a lot of Toughbook devices out in the field, they've got a very long life cycle, but eventually they start failing or customers decide they need to refresh. But the life of that Toughbook is not over yet. So we thought - we've got a service center in Cardiff with a massive capability, why don't we look at how we can refurbish and give these Toughbook devices a second life.

That's how Revive was born, and Panasonic now offers a service to take back retired devices from existing customers. Step one is assessing the device at the Toughbook service center in Cardiff, which already configures 100,000 units per year. If the laptop can be refurbished and there are still spare parts available for that device, the team refurbishes it; if not, it’s responsibly recycled under the correct Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directives. Pugh adds:

Those refurbished or revived devices as we like to call them, we offer them to charities as free donations. We also have a second-hand market that we would sell to as well. Sometimes there are schools or other businesses in certain regions of Europe that might not be able to afford Toughbooks brand new but would definitely benefit from second-hand devices.

Where devices can’t be refurbished, they still don’t go to waste. Panasonic has teamed up with the Royal Mint, the UK’s coin maker, to find a new use for certain components in its Toughbook devices. 

The Royal Mint is based just outside Cardiff, and Panasonic had already worked with the organization on a charity project a few years ago. During that partnership, the Royal Mint shared details of a new project it was working on with Canadian clean tech start-up Excir, which had developed a process to extract the precious metals from printed circuit boards (PCBs) in laptops and mobile phones. Pugh explains:

We decided to partner with them on that so any of those devices that can't be revived, we remove the PCBs, we send them to the Royal Mint and then they use this process whereby they extract the precious metals, mainly gold, and they melt them down and transform them into ingots that they use for their own products, whether that's their commemorative coins or jewelry is something that they've just started doing. All the metals go into those products. 

Sustainable

While the new Revive program aims to make devices already out there in the market part of the circular economy, Panasonic has a similar focus on ensuring its products are more sustainable from scratch. The firm released its first modular device, the Toughbook FZ-55, in September 2019, and this is now joined by the FZ-G2 and most recently the Toughbook 40. Three of the four products in the current Toughbook product range are modular, and have been designed with the idea that users can exchange different modules out in the field. Pugh says:

Already Toughbook devices have a longer lifecycle than a normal consumer device, but with this modular feature, it means users can swap in different functionality. They might not need a serial port anymore, so they can swap in an additional USB; or if their organization decides to introduce more secure sign-in processes, they can add a smart card reader or a fingerprint reader to their unit. The devices will have an even longer lifecycle from being able to swap out those expansion modules.

The firm’s designers in Japan always take into account any existing accessories as well. Panasonic integrates a lot of its devices into vehicles as Toughbooks are an essential tool for the mobile field workers and utilities’ workers using the devices. According to Pugh, vehicle installations can often be quite expensive and invasive, so when the product designers are designing the next generation of a product, they always try and ensure backwards compatibility with accessories such as vehicle docks. 

Hence, the Toughbook FZ-55 is compatible with the predecessor FZ-54 vehicle docks, while the original FZ-G1 vehicle dock supports the newer FZ-G2. Pugh adds:

We try and make everything as backwards compatible as possible and make sure the devices are easily serviceable. The spare parts or the components within the devices, we try and reuse existing ones as well so that we can support them for as long as possible. It's all about extending the lifecycle, that's our focus.

While the launch of the Revive program was prompted by the Green Impact Plan moving more to the forefront of the organization, and Toughbook as a division wanting to support those wider sustainability goals, it also helps Panasonic better support its customers’ goals. Pugh adds:

A lot of our customers are also working towards reducing their Scope 3 emissions. We want to try and see how we can support that for our customers.

This will become increasingly important as regulations come into place around not only a company’s own emissions – known as Scope 1 & 2 - but those right along the entire supply chain, aka Scope 3. 

For Panasonic, this means taking responsibility for its own production processes, but also broadening this out to its suppliers, partners and customers. Kathrin Schlangenfeldt, Manager of Sustainability and Environment Communication at Panasonic Europe, says:

We are part of other companies’ supply chains. It's equally important that we de-carbonize our activities because otherwise other companies could not de-carbonize their value chain. 

For Panasonic, we have always considered ourselves as being an entity of society. That's why we need to monitor our activities and try to make sure that we decrease any negative impact that we have on the environment.

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