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19 Nov, 2020 / BY Neil Sharp

Where do old electronics go? Designing for the circular economy

E wasteE-waste is a hot topic. As electrical products have become cheap, ubiquitous and more disposable the resulting tide of discarded wires, metals, plastic and parts has swelled unchecked. The circular economy is a radical but necessary solution that manufacturers need to embrace.

The cost of electronics waste

The World Economic Forum says that E-Waste is a mounting problem around the world. According to their 2019 data:

“50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced each year, and left unchecked this could more than double to 120 million tonnes by 2050.

That 120 million tonnes is equivalent to the weight of over 11,000 Eiffel Towers.  Or, if you prefer, enough to cover an area more than twice the size of Manhattan.

What’s in the waste?

The breakdown of what's in the waste reflects the current disposability of what were once, expensive and rarely replaced devices:

  • 9% small IT
  • 15% screens
  • 17% temperature exchange equipment
  • 58% large and small appliances

Alarmingly, the WEF say 80% of the documented e-waste produced every year is not collected for recycling - with much of it simply ending up in land-fill. And considering the toxicity and durability of the waste generated (particularly from mobile phones) this represents potentially hazardous materials being consigned to the earth for generations to come.

A crazy situation

But it’s not just the danger of careless disposal that presents a threat to the health, safety and the environmental security of the planet. It’s the pressure it's placing on countries to extract yet more rare metal and other resources from the ground.

This in turn means more CO2 emissions, more dangerous mining conditions supporting an insatiable demand for ever-lower prices, and causing more devastation of the natural world.

It’s a crazy situation and one that is also ignoring the great wealth contained in the devices we’re throwing away.  As the WEF report;

“If we look at the material value of our spent devices, globally this amounts to $62.5 billion, three times more than the annual output of the world’s silver mines:” 

There must be a better way

There is.

The circular economy represents a radical reimagination of what it can mean to produce and consume.  The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describe it in the following way:

‘A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals which impair re-use and return to the biosphere'

It’s a way of doing business that not only aims for zero waste but seeks to make sustainability a way to secure growth and economic well being around the world:

'Additional benefits represent the increased sustainable economic growth and the creation of new business opportunities and innovative, more efficient business models of producing and consuming.'

This is sustainability as a cultural, creative and value-driven endeavour.

The mindset of the circular economy sees waste as a potential source of energy and replenishment. It seeks to harness it and use it as future capital.

How can this apply to electronics manufacturing

The WEF envisage a circular process in electronics manufacturing replacing the polluting and energy inefficient processes of the past.  Instead, circular thinking seeks to power growth without always ‘taking more’.  This can be achieved through:

  • Better and more innovative design
  • More efficient manufacturing
  • A focus on extending product life where ever possible
  • A new approach to how products 'end their lives'

Let's take a look at how this can work in practice:

1. Better and more innovative design

Products should be designed for durabilty, re-use and safe recycling or degradation.

Substances of concern can be substituted out with innovative and sustainable alternatives.

The R&D into wooden, biodegradable computer chips and self-healing materials for example, has extraordinary potential to change the amount of non-recyclable waste the industry is producing.

2. More efficient manufacturing

There must be a greater reintegration of manufacturing scrap, with components made out of recycled materials wherever possible,

3. A focus on extending product life

The rise of device-as-a-service models could be one avenue to encourage less ‘built in obsolescence’ in the product life cycle. With different ways of handling upkeep and ownership, the manufacturer can find new revenue possibilities in servitization, licensing, repair and part replacement. Longer, more enduring commercial relationships can encourage greater investment in continued innovation and technology. Meanwhile, better options for device disassembly, can improve the ability for devices to reused, repurposed and recycled as a whole or in part.

4. End of life - represents new opportunities

A focus on the collection of end-of-life electronics, and more professional and widespread recycling of materials is required to power the new circular economy. Companies and individuals should be incentivised to return unwanted electronics to manufacturers or specialist businesses to keep valuable commodities in the supply chain, rather than in land fill.

But for all this to happen, there has to be a fundamental change in mindset. The idea of obsolescence as opportunity, has to be replaced with a commitment from manufacturers to focus on innovation in recycling, reuse and repurposing.

Where will the impetus for long term change come from?

But where will this impetus come from in the years to come?  Clearly, pressure to change is coming at a regulatory level as governments around the world grapple with the encroaching reality of climate change and environmental destruction.  

But, as many have noted our attitude towards the environment and future sustainability is turning out to be one of the key inter-generational struggles of our era.

As the futurist Keith Coats has pointed out, businesses will need to take a stance.  New generations of workers are demanding real change in the behaviour of industry and corporations and, when they are ignored,  simply moving on.

Electronics manufacturers, in particular, need the innovative talents of a new generation of engineers to help them solve their long standing environmental issues.  They also need the confidence of a new generation of customers willing to support them as they do so. 

OEMs and EMS providers won't be able to retain either if they don't address the radical need for change through a more circular economy.

The first six months: Working in partnership with JJS

 

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