Profiting By Integrating Electronic Waste Into The Circular Economy

The Global Challenge of e-Waste

Electronic waste (e-Waste) has become a global challenge as electrical and electronic products have become ever-present in today’s life. And the problem is growing exponentially as technology is advancing at a quicker pace, replacing old with new. Nearly 45 million tons of e-Waste are generated each year throughout the world and this is only going to increase.

In fact, only 20% of e-Waste is collected and recycled under appropriate conditions and with correct documentation, while the majority is thrown into the trash leading to environmental damage and severe human health consequences when not safely managed.

As e-Waste contains significant amounts of toxic and environmentally sensitive materials, the largely linear system of electronic manufacture and consumption poses a number of health and environmental impacts not only at the point of production but also at the point of disposal.

The Opportunity of Electronic Waste

Meanwhile, the economic opportunity of managing e-Waste in a circular manner is considerable. Considering smartphones alone, almost 1.5 billion units are shipped globally each year. Each unit contains components with an average value of over $100 USD. The potential market therefore totals $150 billion if all of these units can be captured for reuse within a circular system.

If those components were only recovered through recycling rather than reuse, they could still represent a total value of around $11.5 billion. Businesses that can evolve to embrace the circular economy stand to profit greatly from this new market.

Strategies to Increase the Circularity of e-Waste

To move the electronics industry away from the “take – make – dispose” linear model of manufacture and consumption requires answering two considerations…

1. How to Keep Products in Use for Longer

Design for repair and refurbishment

To keep an entire product in use for longer, two main options exist:

  • Repair and upgrade by the phone user (e.g. Fairphone)
  • Repair and refurbishment by technicians (e.g. iPhone)

These two options both allow for a more circular use of resources, and should lead to products, components and materials being kept at their maximum utility for as long as possible.

Change user perception

In order for greater circularity to be achieved, the general public must become more open to used and refurbished products.
There are deterring factors to consider in the electronics market:

  • An assumption of inferior performance
  • Financial risk in the instance of malfunction
  • A need for users to stay up with technological advancements
  • Data safety and security

The majority of these issues could be addressed through guarantees and transparency in the secondhand market, giving the consumers greater and confidence.

While moving away from the linear production model erodes some of the historic profit centers for businesses in the technology industry, it also opens doors for huge value to be garnered by capturing more materials and components at the end of their first lives and maintaining their integral value.

Businesses that make bold steps to embrace circularity will receive a strong ESG score from investors, and improve their brand image for customers; an increasingly important differentiator in a competitive market.

2. How to Recover More Value from Components

Reuse and recovery of components and end materials

While some components are being reused in the current system, it’s unclear to what degree, and the majority is most certainly lost.

Basic components, such as screens, batteries, sensors, hard drives, and chips all have the potential for reuse.

Recycling technologies are constantly developing capacity and capability in order to increase yields and lower the environmental impacts of recycling components from the technology sector. For the metals in electronics, new technologies include hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy.

For plastics, it is important to consider the design of both the products and components to allow for easy identification and separations of polymers. Once this has been achieved, the technology now exists to create recycled polymers that are of similar quality to new.

The environmental cost to mine and extract the minerals required to make many of these components is significantly greater than if they can be effectively refurbished, reused, or recycled. Recovery and reuse both offer a chance for businesses to profit richly from the circular economy. To find out more on how circular economy can benefit your company, click here.

Companies will also suffer from far fewer supply chain issues by using recycled materials, compared to sourcing virgin materials, many of which bring with them reputational risks linked to human rights abuses and environmental degradation.

NWA Helps Technology Clients Reconceptualize Waste

National Waste Associates (NWA) has decades of experience providing waste management guidance to the technology sector. Our waste and sustainability experts help our customers to extract far greater value from their waste and to rethink what needs to be waste in the first place. This results in lower operating costs, fewer regulatory constraints, and an improved brand integrity.

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