Can the electronics industry become circular?

As a modern generation we are incredible proud of our technology, how it has connected and evolved our world, providing convenience at a click of a button. But we don’t always ask what it’s costing our world, or more specifically our planet. The electronics industry is an example of a linear economy at its worst. Products are designed for obsolescence, with increasingly short lifespans. There is little incentive among consumers to recycle and even less opportunity to do so.

Is the consumer culture to blame?

While the manufacturers and service providers may have initiated the culture of consumerism when it comes to electronics, consumers haven’t exactly resisted the idea. It could be ignorance in that people do not realise just how much e-waste is accumulated each year. Figures from 2016 estimate 49 million tonnes of e-waste generated globally and there are predictions that this will rise to 60 million tons by 2021.

When the general public was made aware of the plastic pollution problem, consumer behaviour started to change, which in turn encouraged manufacturers to start taking up circular economy strategies. Could awareness of the e-waste problem be the key to initiating change? Let’s hope so, because change is seriously needed.

Vicious cycle of a flawed industry

The electronics industry is highly competitive, with a high demand for innovation and a culture that perpetuates consumerism. Affluent people pay a premium for the status associated with having the best smart phones, wearable devices and other technology. They will often upgrade, even though their devices are in perfect working order, just because they want to have the latest or the best. Old devices will often be put in a cupboard and forgotten about and essentially wasted.  a

The middle class and even poorer communities have also been caught up in the technology trap. Competition has resulted in lower prices making it possible for more people to get smart phones and have access to technology. While this does provide a market for second hand and reconditioned phones, service providers often offer deals which make new devices more attractive so there is little incentive for consumers to buy second hand.

Contracts are structured so that the consumer pays off a device over the duration of their contract. At the end of the contract period they have a device which holds little value because technology is making it obsolete. The industry isn’t really interested in those devices either, they’d rather just sell a new one. It has been suggested that if manufacturers or service provider retain ownership there will be more incentive for consumers to trade in their old phones when upgrading rather than discarding them. 

Why isn’t more e-waste recycling being done? 

It could be that there is a perception that reclaiming materials is complicated and costly because it involves disassembly and a number of processes, not all of which are environmentally friendly. Some of the processes include smelting, use chemicals or a lot of water. However, researchers at a number of universities are creating better ways to separate out the different metals using ionisation and other innovative techniques. If electronics companies were to spend as much on recycling R&D as they do on new product development and innovation, imagine the potential for the industry to become circular?

Is a sales focussed strategy preventing a circular economy?

Now while from a sales perspective the upgrading and upselling strategy may seem like a good idea, from a sustainability perspective it is pure madness. Technology devices are very resource intensive. The components are made up of number of precious metals, which are sourced primarily from virgin raw materials.

A study conducted in China in 2016 determined that the cost of mining and processing ore for these precious metals cost thirteen times more than reclaiming the same resources from e-waste. When considered from a circular economy perspective, the real waste is not making use of the resources already in the industry.

Research from 2016 estimated the potential value of materials that could be reclaimed from e-waste to be around $64,6 billion, yet currently only 20% of e-waste is being properly recycled. If the industry wants to continue to grow, but in a sustainable way, perhaps it should to stop focussing on sales figures and start looking at ways to tap into the potential of recycling resources.