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16 Jun, 2022 / BY Neil Sharp

E-waste recycling for OEMs - a warning and an opportunity

e waste recycling

The UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has repeated its warning that consumers, government and electronics manufacturers must act now to prevent further environmental destruction and future shortages of vital technology.

The end of rare metal reserves and decades of needless waste by consumers and manufacturers have caused a perfect storm in electronic supply lines. The result has been terminal shortages in rare metals, fluctuating prices and environmental destruction.

But it’s a threat that could be offset by more affirmative action.

Consumers, legislators and manufacturers must work together

The RSC’s latest campaign hopes to highlight the importance of consumers, legislators and manufacturers working together to solve the crisis.

Professor Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry says:

“Our tech consumption habits remain highly unsustainable and have left us at risk of exhausting the raw elements we need.“It is essential that governments and businesses urgently do more to develop a circular economy which can tackle the world’s growing e-waste crisis and alleviate the strain on supply chains.”

The RSC’s latest research concludes that consumers around the world now understand the challenges but are all too often frustrated in their desire to help:

  • Most consumers want their devices to last longer, but they find it too difficult (68%) or too expensive (71%) to repair them when minor things go wrong
  • 60% said they would be more likely to switch to a rival of their preferred technology brand if they knew the product was made in a sustainable way.
  • 73% of people surveyed worldwide said they believed governments should take urgent action to tackle e-waste before the situation gets any worse.
  • 57% say they worry about the environmental effect of the unused tech devices they have at home, but either don’t know what to do with them or are unconvinced that schemes in place locally, will deal with the waste correctly.

The Royal Society’s report underlines conclusions from 2020

This report comes following the publication of a UK parliamentary report in 2020 that included evidence from the Royal Society. The Environmental Audit Committee report into e-waste identified key areas of action required to avert major shortages and further environmental destruction.

Their report contained some conclusions which were critical of the practices of the tech giants who, they found, relied on built-in obsolescence and disposabilty culture to keep selling more ‘stuff’. 

It also said that governments weren’t doing enough to raise consumer awareness around these critical issues and help the public recycle what they could. 

The parliamentary report urged the government:

  • To promote the importance of a new waste hierarchy - urging people to "reduce, reuse and recycle".  They concluded we should reduce our consumption of new tech in the first instance, and look to reuse, resell and recycle old technology as much as we could.
  • To act now to conserve and recycle supplies of raw materials critical for medical devices and low carbon technologies. Six critical raw materials in smartphones were particularly at risk and were likely to be exhausted and unavailable within 100 years. This was a key feature of the RSC’s Precious Elements campaign in 2019.
  • To create easy collection methods so consumers and businesses can dispose of their devices easily and effectively.
  • Enhance labelling on products – aimed at both consumers and those involved in recycling to ensure they are recycled correctly.
  • Drive incentives to design technology with sustainability and repairability in mind. 

And pushed for long term cross-industry solutions:

  • Greater investment is needed in research – to reduce the need for critical raw materials in new technology design, find efficient alternatives, and improve recycling techniques.
  • The government should initiate formal collaborative networks between local and national governments, academia, manufacturers, and retailers or producers to ensure the challenge is being tackled effectively.

A change in mindset?

For years, some in the electronics industry have been arguing that while the manufacturing sector had to take more responsibility for e-waste, consumers had to play their part, too. Disposability was driven by customer expectations of continual renewal and, most critically, by the demand for low prices.

But some consumers have been frustrated for years over memory chips that can’t be easily upgraded, the difficulty of replacing components, their inability to change dying batteries, and a hundred other issues that were forcing them to change devices and appliances unnecessarily. 

Now, the latest research from the Royal Society shows there is mainstream public awareness around the importance of e-waste recycling and it’s surely time to act. The evidence points to a new understanding that different models of mend and reuse could be the way to prevent eco-disaster and serious shortages of vital electronic products in the future. 

To make this a reality, in the future we need to see manufacturers:

Shifting to servitisation and subscription technology

There are opportunities for recurring revenue and to engineer better value for customers by looking at servitisation models. Such models are incentivising manufacturers to build products that they can lease instead of sell. These products will be:

  • longer lasting
  • more efficient
  • modular
  • easier to upgrade
  • easier to reclaim and recycle 

All of which are key to developing a more circular economy.

Embracing greater innovation beyond recycling

And what about self-mending materials to increase longevity and reduce waste? Or PCBs that are biodegradable? Components that regenerate themselves are being actively explored by aerospace and medical device developers. Meanwhile, plant-based computer chips are becoming a bleeding-edge reality.

Can you value engineer a more sustainable product suite?

Now is the time for manufacturers to look towards value-engineering their products so they are fit for a new age of environmental responsibility. Whole suites of products may need to be looked at through new prisms of repairability and servitisation. It’s what the planet needs and what consumers want. And it will underpin a shift to a more sustainable commercial future for many of us.

Value Engineering guide for manufacturing

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