The last few decades have witnessed an explosion of electronic consumer goods. Now our lives are full of devices from smartphones to laptops, speakers, TVs, wearables, batteries and chargers – many of which we replace quite regularly. However, the resources and energy used to make these products are limited. This paper discusses how the principles of the circular economy can be applied to create a more sustainable future electronics industry.
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Electronics waste is a growing problem
Electronic products have quickly become an integral part of our daily lives. They offer utility benefits for virtually every human activity. However, items such as computers and smartphones often lose their value and apparent usefulness just a year or two after they are purchased. Although they are made of durable materials and built to withstand daily use and can cost thousands of dollars, we still view smartphones and computers as disposables.
In many ways, this problem is an inevitable consequence of the rapidly advancing nature of technology today. Technological advances have been exponential since the invention of modern computers in the second half of the twentieth century, and consumer technology today is orders of magnitude faster, more powerful, and more functional than comparable products just a decade ago.
In practice, this leads to the fact that billions of smartphones, laptops and various electronic devices are sent to landfills every year. Each of these devices represents a fairly significant amount of embodied energy (energy used to produce the device and the materials that make it up), and most of them use hard-to-reach materials such as rare earth metals. Discarding them loses the energy and materials used to produce them, and indirectly creates greater demand for valuable limited resources.
The problem with electronics waste is exacerbated. Every year in the world we throw away almost 50 million tons of electronics. Only one-fifth of this waste is collected for recycling under appropriate conditions. The rest is sent to landfills or recycled in inappropriate facilities where more materials are lost than recovered. Even if electronic products are recycled in state-of-the-art plants, only about 40% of the resources used to produce them can be obtained.
Such a system, when in most cases products are made using primary materials and a significant amount of energy, distributed to consumers, discarded and then sent to a residual waste stream, is described as linear. The linear system begins with the extraction of materials from the environment, which is almost always harmful to the environment; it ends with the disposal of products or their components and materials into the environment, which is also almost always harmful to the environment.
The linear model for electronics – “take, manufacture and dispose” – must give way to a more sustainable system if we are to take advantage of advanced technology, while taking seriously our commitment to the world’s environment. The circular economy approach aims to isolate waste from the system and reduce resource needs by recovering and reusing materials at a much higher rate than current ecosystems allow for recycling.
The transition to a circular economy means the transformation of activities and processes at every stage of the product life cycle. Products need to be designed differently, with requirements for reuse and efficient recycling integrated into the design process from the beginning.
Product designers can consider waste and recycling processes as well as manufacturing processes to ensure a cohesive life cycle from cradle to grave (and subsequent reincarnations). Distributors can deploy efficient reverse allocation cycles to recover devices after the end user has finished with them, which contributes to greater reuse and more efficient recycling.
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There is currently no circular economy for electronics. But the potential impact of closing the cycle – obtaining millions of tons of embodied energy and extracted resources that are thrown away every year with old phones and laptops – has inspired activists, researchers and politicians around the world.
In addition to the necessary environmental benefits, the circular economy for electronics also presents significant economic opportunities. Researchers have estimated the potential value of smartphones in the US market at $ 150 billion annually. Much of this value is lost when foods are discarded. But even if all smartphones were simply recycled – the least valuable way to close the cycle in a closed economy – they could keep the value of $ 11.5 billion in the US market.
How can we close the loop?
Activist organizations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are currently working with governments and intergovernmental bodies such as the European Union to create rules that will encourage businesses to extract and process electronic products and create a circular economy. Researchers are working to provide this policy work with more data, and industry is also involved.
But the circular economy for electronics still exists only theoretically. To get it and see the economic and environmental benefits it can bring, we will need to fundamentally change the way we view, develop, buy and use electronic products.
Literature and additional reading
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2018). Circular-type consumer electronics: an initial study. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. [Online] Available at: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-consumer-electronics-an-initial-exploration.
Pollard, J. et al. (2022). Development and application of cycle indicators for the electrical and electronics sectors: a product life cycle approach. Sustainability. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/su14031154.