Fitting e-waste into the circular economy

An e-Waste collection centre in South America [Photo: Curtis Palmer, Flickr]

An e-Waste collection centre in South America. [Curtis Palmer/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report The Circular Economy.

SPECIAL REPORT / Phones, computers, washing machines – integrating a few core principles, such as the waste hierarchy, into the manufacturing of these products can reduce their environmental impact and allow for a functioning circular economy, according to analysts.

Every year, manufacturers release new and updated electronics onto the market, and consumers rush to keep up, leaving behind large numbers of unwanted and unused products.

Many are left hidden away in drawers or make their way to landfill, while companies source more raw materials, such as metals and oils for plastics, to supply the market.

The mining of these resources has limits, and the manufacturing of new products places an enormous burden on the environment. An estimated 80% of the environmental impacts of an electronic product are determined in the design phase, through the consumption of energy and other resources, such as water, waste generation, and the release of hazardous substances.

The production of one computer requires an estimated 240 kilograms of fossil fuels, 22 kg of synthetic chemical compounds and 1,500 litres of greywater.

The resource consumption associated with creating a new electronic device is far greater than any gains from more efficient design.

“In case of a 10% increase in the energy efficiency of a new notebook as compared to the older one, replacement of the older notebook can only be justified after 33 to 89 years, if environmental concerns are considered,” according to a 2011 study by the ?ko-Institut, commissioned by the German Federal Environment Agency.

Stéphane Arditi, of the European Environmental Bureau, a grouping of environmental NGOs, suggested three ways to improve the impact of the electronics industry, in line with the EU’s waste hierarchy; extending the life time of products, reusing products and materials, and recycling.

Arditi called for possible requirements – such as a minimum life time, the maintenance of performance over time, the possibility to replace critical components and the upgrading of parts – to discourage manufacturers from employing tactics such as “in-built obsolescence”, which require consumers to continue buying new products.

“[Many of] our products are not designed to be repaired in the first place,” said Stéphane Arditi, at the EU’s annual environmental conference, Green Week. He also suggests possible requirements for disassembly and the material separation of products, the avoidance of glue or welding of parts, the availability of spare parts and an index of the materials used in a product, to allow for better recycling.

Responsibility for waste                                                                 

Part of the circular economy process requires somebody to take responsibility for the discarded material.

This has led to creation of ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR), a system used in a number of companies in Europe and worldwide, requiring companies to take responsibility for the recovery of the products they put on the market.

There are many different ways in which EPR is carried out in Europe but it has led to an increase in electronics recycling.

“EPR has been a catalyst for scaling up and modernising the WEEE collection and recovery sector,” said Raphael Veit, of research company Sagis Ltd, referring to the waste of electric and electronic equipment.

However, he said, the circular flow of materials requires “more than producer responsibility”, as a number of different organisations are involved in the recovery, buying and selling of discarded electronic materials, from municipalities to collection companies.

“All parties involved in collection and treatment need to be carefully taken into account and where necessary regulated in view of closing the loop without leading to market distortions,” he said at the Green Week conference.

The European Commission is currently preparing a “circular economy” package, which is expected to be published in July.

The package includes updates of current waste legislation and mooted resource efficiency goals, such as increased targets for recycling.

Resource-efficiency is one of the seven flagship initiatives in the 'Europe 2020' strategy for sustainable growth and jobs, endorsed by EU heads of states in 2010.

The concept means decoupling economic growth from natural resource use – including raw materials, commodities, water, air or ecosystems.

The European Commission unveiled its Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe in September 2011, recommending the introduction of resource-efficiency indicators and targets across the 27-nation bloc.

  • 1 July:  European Commission expected to present package on the Circular Economy

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