Plugging into circular solutions for electronic goods

Innovation in the design and manufacture of electronic products and devices has resulted in greatly expanded access and brought about benefits for society that were inconceivable only a few decades ago. 

The problems of a linear electronics industry

In education, banking and healthcare, for example, increased digitalisation and improved connectivity have helped to address many of the world’s most urgent social issues.

However, rapid innovation also means devices become out of date almost as soon as they are manufactured – with newer, more efficient or more powerful alternatives already in development. This creates a system of short-cycle production and consumption that has left a vast stock of wasted resources and unrealised value in its wake.

The World Economic Forum’s 2019 report A New Circular Vision for Electronics estimated that 44.7 million tonnes of electronic waste is produced annually – a weight equivalent to all the commercial aircraft ever built.

The economic value of this waste is immense: it is estimated that the annual value of electronic waste could be as much as $62.5 billion and it could contain up to 7% of the planet’s recoverable gold. The concentration of metals in electronic waste is also much higher than mineral ore with up to 100 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than could be mined from a tonne of unrefined ore.

Consumer electronics also use large amounts of rare earth elements, whose extraction and refining cause significant environmental damage – but which are not recoverable using current recycling methods.

Moving to more circular practices

The electronics industry has the potential to embrace circularity more than other sectors by shifting from selling devices to providing services.

For example, we’ve already seen through the widespread use of data centres, how individual companies can pay to use shared data storage equipment serving multiple businesses, rather than having to invest in their own. This means that the equipment can be utilised to its full extent – reducing the number of devices that need to be manufactured, as well as improving efficiency during use.

For manufacturers, moving from product to service models also encourages them to design equipment that is modular, easier to upgrade and simpler to dismantle and recover materials from at end of life. This is because the manufacturer retains responsibility for the product across its entire lifecycle and will be able to generate higher profits, not from the volume of goods sold, but from extending the lifetime of equipment already in operation.

For consumers, choice is redefined and driven by a subscription model offering ongoing upgrades, repairs and other enhancements throughout a product’s lifetime. In the US, such a model is already offered by Dell for its range of PCs and other devices.

More broadly, there is a challenge to improve the design of electronics so it is simpler to recover the high-value materials embedded in many different components. Linked to this, we also need innovation in processes for safely recovering and reusing materials from the huge amount of electronic waste that currently exists.

Innovation in action

Electronics giant Philips has pledged to generate 15% of total revenues from circular usage solutions by 2020. As part of this, it is encouraging customers to return obsolete equipment, such as MRI scanners and x-ray equipment, for refurbishment or recycling. Over the past decade, it has recovered and repurposed 7,000 tonnes of medical imaging equipment that may otherwise have gone to waste. 

To help achieve its circular revenues goal, Philips is also working with waste management company Renewi to give new life to old materials. Renewi’s Monostreams division has formed ‘closed loop’ partnerships with manufacturers such as Philips and Miele, taking back their old vacuum cleaners and washing machines and returning recovered plastic and cast iron for reuse in new appliances.

Belgian company Umicore is an example of a company that has transformed itself to serve the circular economy. Originally focused on mining and smelting activities, it began a shift towards clean tech and materials recycling in the 1990s and is now almost entirely focused on these activities.

For example, its facility in Hoboken, Belgium can process up to 7,000 tonnes of used batteries each year, creating high levels of recovered materials while ensuring that toxic residual material is properly managed.