In a perfect world, waste would not be a by-product of production. Without waste, there would be no need for landfills, and pollution would be non-existent. But, unfortunately, that is not the reality humans experience day-to-day. The reality is that there is waste and pollution, and there is too much of it. Be that as it may, it does not stop companies from adapting more “circular” production methods to cut waste and recycle used components and products. This is where sustainable electronics come into play.
Of course, with the amount of waste accumulated over decades of complacency and pollution, maintaining such a sustainable and circular production method is easier said than done. Additionally, the increasingly contemporary technology trends make such a challenge even harder. Nevertheless, while using recycled content is never straightforward, understanding the challenges in a field as complicated as electronics is the first step toward a more circular future.
Sustainable Electronics: The Struggles
With some materials and some products, recycled content is straightforward. For example, people understand that when you toss a water bottle into a recycling bin, at some point, it comes back as a new water bottle or something else made with plastic. However, using recycled content is not that simple with electronics products due to the following factors:
- The complexity of materials
According to a World Economic Forum and UN E-waste Coalition study, e-waste represents 2% of solid waste streams. Still, it makes up 70% of the hazardous waste in landfills as these safe combinations for end users in products break down.
Of this percentage, a surprising amount of the elements considered waste can be found in electronics. Up to 60 elements from the periodic table can be found in more complex electronics. This complexity in mixtures and components is a significant hindrance when recycling components and various materials.
- Finding sources
For materials like steel and machined aluminum, it can be more challenging today to close the loop and convert e-waste materials into usable supplies for new components for electronics. In these cases, there is a need to look at other recyclables and waste materials from other industries, called industrial symbiosis.
- Supply chains
Existing global supply chains are predominantly linear – set up to move materials through manufacturing and then distribute the electronics to customers worldwide. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to intercept and integrate recycled content into the process. As a result, global supply chains need to be reconfigured for the ability to move products and materials to enable circularity for repair, reuse, recycling, and manufacturing.
The perception challenge with consumers is accurate. Consumers are far more aware of the environmental impact of the products they purchase and look to make sustainable choices. However, there is still the misconception that using recycled and/or sustainable materials in new products means they are of lower quality.
Sustainable Electronics: The Solutions
Numerous manufacturing companies continue to employ and adapt to a more circular and sustainable way of producing components and electronics. For example, manufacturers have begun making various products in their catalogs out of bioplastics from tree waste commonly used in making paper. Other groups have spearheaded programs implementing recyclable materials such as rare earth magnets to produce electronic components.
These changes have taught manufacturers critical lessons about what’s needed to drive a circular economy for electronics. These lessons and tips include:
- Design for circularity
Designing for sustainability and circularity starts with the end goal in mind. As such, many companies and groups design their revamped products so that the device would be easy to upgrade, repair, dismantle, or recycle once it reaches its end-of-life stages.
Manufacturers continue to work hand-in-hand with the recycling industry to understand how better products and be made with the least amount of waste possible. To this end, manufacturers often assign design and engineering teams to collaborate with various electronics disposal partners (EDPs) to supervise the disassembling process of multiple products.
- Integrate sustainability across business units
Sustainability and commitment to the circular economy are increasingly embedded across many companies and distributors. Every business unit and function understands its role in getting to the moonshot goal and leaving no path unstudied and unexplored.
Collaborating with many supply chain partners is one of the most substantial contributors to solidifying a sustainable product cycle. With these partnerships and relationships with customers and other companies, manufacturers have further developed the capability and infrastructure to capture and reuse more significant quantities and new materials from electronics at end-of-life and other industries.
Such steps are crucial to creating industry-wide standards and common definitions for circular electronic products and services. Additionally, harmonizing regulations globally to ensure the ethical and responsible movement of materials across borders would help increase where they can be used for circular purposes, including repair, reuse, and recycling.
As an industry, the technology sector should also be taking the initiative in driving the demand for more sustainable products. This initiative will allow more manufacturers to jump into the trend and help the cause become more and more mainstream. To properly recycle and reuse electronics waste, the industry needs a consistent and robust supply of obsolete materials and a process of effectively and efficiently procuring electronics waste.
Where we can’t close the loop within our electronic waste streams, we need to find, define and scale secondary waste materials from other industries. By joining forces, the electronics industry can accelerate the transition to a truly circular economy.
Sustainable Electronics: The Future
It’s not enough to do less harm. For a more sustainable world, the technology sector must rethink its business models and shift away from linear sales to as-a-service models that better enable the recirculation of materials and the extension of lifespans.
Many manufacturers and companies have focused on sustainability for decades. As a result, they have developed a deep understanding of the responsibility and the role manufacturers and distributors need to play in protecting the planet. This allows people to drive innovation and new ways of manufacturing, creating products, and bringing out-of-use products back into the supply chain to accelerate the circular economy, making a measurable, scalable, positive impact.
IT can be an enabler for the broader circular economy with these mindsets across the sector. Technology has the power to reshape the world, from collecting and analyzing trusted data in real-time using edge computing and 5G wireless technologies to redesigning global supply chains to create greater efficiencies and less waste.
The circular economy is a journey, not a destination, but every step from every stakeholder will be critical.