Rapid technological innovation and lower costs have increased access to electronic products and digital technology. This has resulted in an increased use of electronic devices and equipment while greatly increasing the amount of e-waste, or discarded electrical and electronic devices.
“E-waste is now the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. Some forms of it have been growing exponentially,” The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) report in “A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot.”
According to PACE, the number of devices that are connected to the internet now number “many more than humans.” By 2020, this is projected to be between 25-50 billion, reflecting plummeting costs and rising demand. “Globally, society only deals with 20% of e-waste appropriately and there is little data on what happens to the rest,” PACE reports, “which for the most part ends up in landfill, or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions.”
The Global Pile of Electronic Waste
E-waste is worth at least $62.5 billion annually, which is more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of most countries. In fact, if e-waste was a single nation, PACE says it’s GDP would be on a par with that of Kenya. “Furthermore,” the organization reports, “123 countries have less GDP than the global pile of electronic waste.”
High e-waste levels pose a global problem due to consumer relationships with electronics (affordability has opened up opportunities in developing countries, for example); a lack of electronics recycling rates (even in the EU, just 35% of e-waste is officially reported as properly collected and recycled); and labor, environmental, and health issues (e-waste can contain substances that are hazardous to human health).
Singling out cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) as two advanced technologies that could help “dematerialize” the electronics industry, PACE says that the rise of service business models—plus better product tracking and take-back—could lead to global circular value chains.
“Material efficiency, recycling infrastructure, and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential,” PACE asserts in its report. “If the sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide.”
A Circular Vision for Electronics
According to PACE’s new report, a “circular economy” is a system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value at all times, and where waste is designed out of the system: “It can be achieved through different business models, including product as a service, sharing of assets, life extension, and finally recycling.”
Building a circular economy for electronics requires attention to these different aspects of the supply chain, all of which procurement can play a role in:
Design. Products need to be designed for reuse, durability, and eventually safe recycling. “Many companies have made global commitments to designing waste out of the electronics value chain and others have worked hard to design hazardous materials out of their products,” PACE reports. “These kinds of experiences must be shared across the industry, creating a pre-competitive, open-source space for collaboration.”
Buy-back or return systems. Increasingly producers of electronics could offer buy-back or return systems for old equipment. “Incentivizing the consumer financially and guaranteeing their data [would] be properly handled,” PACE notes, “and expertise in user experience could be employed to make the end-of-life process smoother.”
Advanced recycling and recapturing. According to PACE, companies and governments could work toward creating a system for closed-loop production in which all old products are collected and then the materials or components reintegrated into new ones. “This will take new financial incentives and policy levers as well as private-sector leadership,” the group reports. “The recycling sector will also need an upgrade; in some cases, recycled materials are not of sufficient quality for use in new electronic products.”
Durability and repair. “Society must be able to benefit from well designed, long-living products,” PACE writes. “Longevity can be further increased when equipment is maintained, repaired, and refurbished.” Second use and harvesting components represent a significant opportunity, it adds. “Secondhand electrical goods are worth more than individual components, which again are worth an order of magnitude more than the materials alone.”
Urban mining. According to PACE, a circular economy for electronics maximizes the amount of valuable e-waste that moves back into the production of new electronic products and components. To get there, it says more countries—especially those in the developing world—must adopt e-waste legislation, such as extended producer responsibility and the creation of a formal recycling industry. “Not only will this mitigate some of the worst effects,” PACE states, “but it will also create a huge opportunity for economic growth and decent work.”