Every year, humanity generates over 50 million tons of electronic waste – about eight times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
But what if we could prevent that colossal waste by holding onto our gadgets for much longer?
Dell Technologies, Cisco, Google and Microsoft are among the leading tech and electronics firms that have recently joined forces to develop a circular economy for electronics by 2030, convened by global organizations including the World Economic Forum and World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
The Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP) brings together businesses, experts and policymakers to explore ways to cut down on e-waste across all stages of the electronics life cycle, from design to recycling.
The global scourge of e-waste
As the world’s demand for electronics grows, so too does the rate at which these devices and appliances are being discarded. The average smartphone lasts just two to three years before being replaced, while laptops usually last three to five years. E-waste production is set to rise to 74 million tons per year by 2030 – an increase of 40 percent from today.
Less than 20 percent of e-waste is currently recycled. The rest is usually dumped in landfills, incinerated or informally disposed of in the Global South, causing toxins such as lead and dioxins to be released into the environment, damaging ecosystems and endangering the health of local communities.
And by simply burying our electronics in the ground, we’re also squandering some USD 57 billion worth of high-value materials such as gold, silver, copper and platinum each year – roughly the GDP of Croatia.
Much of this waste can be attributed to our current economic model, which extracts materials from the Earth, turns them into consumer products, and then disposes of them after they are used. This is known as a linear economy.
Not only does the linear economy fail to account for environmental and social costs, but it also leads to planned obsolescence – the practice of designing products so that they either stop working within a given amount of time, perform increasingly worse over time, or become outdated and unfashionable.
In one notable case last year, Apple agreed to pay a USD 113 million settlement after admitting that it deliberately slowed down older iPhone models, prompting many users to buy new devices instead.
Likewise, many manufacturers knowingly make their products difficult to repair, such as by limiting the availability of spare parts or prohibiting people from fixing their own devices.
These practices are now banned in the E.U. and the U.K., where a recently adopted law now requires new appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and TVs to be repairable for up to 10 years.
The circular economy
The new European legislation is an important step toward what’s known as the circular economy: an alternative economic model that reduces waste and pollution by design and keeps products and materials in use for as long as possible.
The right-hand side of this diagram illustrates how circularity can be applied to the materials used in electronics, such as metals and plastics. The innermost loop represents how products can be designed to be durable and easy to repair, thus prolonging their lifespan. They can also be shared between users to reduce the need for new products.
When a product is no longer needed, it can be redistributed to another user for re-use, such as through second-hand stores or online marketplaces. When it stops working, it can be either refurbished or remanufactured, as is often the case with computers. As a last resort, it can be broken down into its basic materials for recycling.
Toward circular electronics
To close all of these loops, the CEP will help roll out an education program for circular electronics design, as well as drive demand for circular products by communicating their benefits to consumers. To extend the lifespan of these products, it will provide training for independent repair providers and enable consumers to conduct safe repairs.
At the end-of-life stage, the CEP will support refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling efforts by creating a global system for manufacturer take-back, developing reverse supply chains and scaling up markets for recycled materials.
These circular strategies could boost our dwindling chances of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees above pre-Industrial levels. One recent report finds that doubling global circularity could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent and material use by 28 percent.
More promising still, circularity could pay dividends within a matter of years. According to this 2015 study, a circular economy in Europe could generate EUR 1.8 trillion per year in economic benefits by 2030, including EUR 600 billion in material cost savings.
These benefits have not gone unnoticed among business leaders.
“As an industry, we need to move faster,” said Michael Murphy, vice president for product development engineering at Dell Technologies, “which is why the Circular Electronics Partnership is so important – to drive collaboration and eliminate roadblocks to make bigger strides in circularity.”