The last couple of decades have witnessed an explosion in electronic consumer products. Our lives are now full of devices from smartphones to laptops, speakers, TVs, wearables, battery packs, and chargers – many of which we replace fairly regularly. However, the resources and energy used to make these products are finite. This article looks at how the principles of a 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 rapidly become an essential component of our everyday lives. They offer utility benefits for almost every human activity. However, items like computers and smartphones lose value and perceived utility often just a year or two after they are purchased. Even though they are made from durable materials and constructed with daily use in mind, and can cost thousands of dollars, we still view smartphones and computers as disposable products.
In many ways, this problem is an inevitable consequence of the rapidly progressing 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 tech today is orders of magnitude faster, more powerful, and more feature-packed than comparable products from just a decade ago.
Practically, this results in billions of smartphones, laptops, and assorted electronic devices being sent to landfills every year. Each of these devices represents quite a significant amount of embodied energy (energy used to manufacture the device and its component materials), and most use hard to come by materials like rare earth metals. Discarding them wastes the energy and materials used to manufacture them, and indirectly creates more demand for precious finite resources.
The electronics waste problem is getting worse. We discard almost 50 million tons of electronics products globally each year. Only one-fifth of this waste is collected for recycling in appropriate conditions. The rest is sent to landfills or processed in inadequate facilities where more materials are lost than recovered. Even when electronics products are recycled in state-of-the-art facilities, only around 40% of the embodied resources used to manufacture them can be retrieved.
A system like this – where in most cases products are manufactured using virgin materials and significant amounts of energy, distributed to consumers, discarded, and then sent to join residual waste stream – is described as linear. A linear system starts with the extraction of materials from the environment, which nearly always damages the environment; it ends with the disposal of products or their component parts and materials into the environment, which also nearly always damages the environment.
The linear model for electronics – “take, make, and dispose” – must give way to a more sustainable system if we want to enjoy the benefits of advancing technology while taking our commitments to the world’s environmental health seriously. A circular economy approach seeks to design waste out of the system and cut down on resource demands by recovering and reusing materials at significantly higher rates than the current piecemeal recycling ecosystems allow.
Transitioning towards a circular economy means transforming activities and processes at every stage of a product’s life cycle. Products need to be designed differently, with requirements for reuse and efficient recycling integrated into the design process from the outset.
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 effective reverse distribution cycles to recover devices after the end-user is done with them, facilitating more reuse and more effective recycling.
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Currently, there is no circular economy for electronics. But the potential impact of closing the loop – retrieving millions of tons of embodied energy and extracted resources thrown away with old phones and laptops every year – has inspired activists, researchers, and policymakers around the world.
As well as the necessary environmental benefits, a circular economy for electronics also presents significant economic opportunities. Researchers have identified a potential value of $150 billion of smartphones entering the US market each year. Most of this value is lost when products are discarded. But even if all smartphones were just recycled – the least valuable way to close the loop into a circular economy – they could retain $11.5 billion of value in the US market.
How Can We Close the Loop?
Currently, activist organizations like the Ellen Macarthur Foundation are working with governments and intergovernmental bodies like the European Union to create regulations that will incentivize businesses to retrieve and recycle electronics products and create a circular economy. Researchers are working to feed this policymaking work with more data, and industry is also involved.
But a circular economy for electronics still only exists in theory. To get one, and see the economic and environmental benefits it could bring, we will have to fundamentally change the way we view, design, buy and use electronic products.
References and Further Reading
Ellen Macarthur Foundation (2018). Circular Consumer Electronics: An Initial Exploration. Ellen Macarthur Foundation. [Online] Available at: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-consumer-electronics-an-initial-exploration.
Pollard, J. et al. (2022). Developing and Applying Circularity Indicators for the Electrical and Electronic Sector: A Product Lifecycle Approach. Sustainability. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/su14031154.