Why is a circular economy for electronics important?
Electronics have transformed the way we live and work. Today’s global consumer electronics market is worth an estimated US$1 trillion, and is projected to continue growing.
Electronic waste also represents the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, with products often thrown away prematurely and less than 20% collected and recycled. Raw materials valued at approximately $57 billion are lost in e-waste globally—mainly iron, copper, and gold—and lack of proper collection and recycling leads to pollution and health hazards.
At the same time, new production of vast quantities of smartphones and computers are using ever more natural resources and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
A circular economy is vital if we are to transform the electronics industry’s effects on human health, the environment, and biodiversity. It will allow us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save precious resources, and protect workers and communities from health hazards associated with waste. The industry urgently needs to become more sustainable and resilient.
What could circularity for the electronics industry look like?
In a circular economy for electronics
New products use more recycled and recyclable contentMaking electronic products from recycled materials, and ensuring they are designed to be recycled again at the end of their life, will reduce demand for natural resources and prevent pollution.
Products and their components are used for longerDesigning electrical products and their components for longevity, and changing consumer behavior to make them stay in use for longer, helps to reduce demand for new products. This cuts down resource use and other destructive environmental and social impacts from production and waste.
End-of-use products are collected and recycled to a high standardIn 2019, 54 million metric tons of e-waste was generated, of which just 17.4% was collected and recycled. In a circular economy, products no longer suitable for use or reuse are collected, sorted and recycled using socially and environmentally responsible practices. This prevents the pollution and health hazards associated with e-waste.
Where is action most needed for a transition to a circular economy for electronics?
Companies, governments, civil society organizations all have a role to play in creating a circular economy for the electronics industry. These ten calls-to-action can help us accelerate the transition, and make it as impactful as possible.
1. Incentivize and Support Product Design for Circularity
About 80% of the total environmental impact of a product is determined in the design phase. Providing incentives and technical support to designing electronics for longevity (making them durable, easy-to-upgrade, or easy-to-repair), recyclability (easy-to-disassemble, with safe inputs), and with recycled content is key to achieving a circular economy.
2. Enable Producers to Increase Sourcing of Recycled Content
Increasing the amount of recycled content in electronics manufacturing is essential for slowing down demand for new materials in this growing industry.
3. Transform Consumption Modes to Increase Market Demand for Circular Products and Services
The industry will only scale-up the design and development of products integrating circular principles when there is clear demand from both individual consumers and large-scale buyers.
4. Guide and Support New Business Models for Environmental, Financial, and Social Triple-Win
New business models such as subscription, rental, and re-commerce need to be designed with environmental, social, and financial impacts in mind, so they can grow and contribute in a meaningful way to the wellbeing of people and planet.
5. Encourage Bring-Back by Consumers
Consumers often lack awareness about the environmental, health, and safety impacts of e-waste. Even if awareness is there, it does not always lead to action due to, for example, limited knowledge about local options for bring-back, or a lack of incentives.
6. Set Up Effective Collection Systems
E-waste can contain hazardous substances such as lead and mercury. Informally collected e-waste often ends up with substandard treatment, which causes severe social, health, and environmental damage. We must set up better collection systems that are connected to high-standard recycling.
7. Enable Efficiency and Transparency in Compliant and Responsible Transboundary Movement
Transboundary movements of scrap materials, used electronics, and e-waste are vital for large-scale reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishment, and electronic recycling. We need to develop more efficient trade solutions for environmentally sound management, in compliance with the Basel Convention.
8. Strategically Plan and Install Sorting, Pre-Processing, and Recycling Operations
Sorting, pre-processing, and electronic recycling facilities are large, multifaceted projects requiring long-term investment. They must be planned carefully with holistic considerations including location, capacity, and speciality.
9. Increase Incentives for Investment in Recycling Technologies and Facilities
A variety of factors is limiting the economic viability of e-waste recycling, and subsequently incentives for investment are few and far between. Economic incentives must be strengthened to scale-up electronic recycling operations and increase investment in technology.
10. Integrate and Advance Decent Work in the Transition to a Circular Economy for Electronics
The transition to a circular economy offers an opportunity to create new jobs in areas such as repair and refurbish, as well as creating more formal employment for those who currently work in collection and recycling.