From waste to wealth: Creating a circular electronics industry

As our use of electronic devices and equipment has boomed in recent years, it has brought opportunities to create new jobs, tackle climate change and other environmental challenges, deliver health care and expand education.

From waste to wealth: Creating a circular electronics industry

Yet with these benefits have also come unintended consequences. E-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world with around 50 million tonnes produced each year, equivalent to all commercial aircraft ever built. Only 20% is disposed of appropriately; and when it is not lingering in cabinets or spare rooms, the rest is dumped in landfill, incinerated, or (despite a ban on e-waste exports to developing countries) ends up in poorer countries where it is pulled apart or burnt to recover valuable resources, releasing toxins which damage health, contaminate soil, pollute water sources and enter food supply chains.

As well as being environmentally unsustainable, this deluge of e-waste represents enormous untapped wealth. It is incredibly valuable, containing many high-value metals such as gold, silver and platinum, and is worth at least $62.5bn annually, the equivalent of the GDP of Kenya.

The launch of the Environmental Audit Committee’s new Inquiry into electronic waste and the circular economy recognises how unsustainable and wasteful the current system is, and the urgency of the need to move to greater circularity. 

The Inquiry provides a great opportunity for business and Government to come together to put the UK is at the forefront of moving to a circular economy for electronics. Radical action will be needed to move away from our linear system (with its tendency for new product launches, cheaper goods and built-in obsolescence) to transform the electronics system to one where products are designed to last and resources are valued and re-used.

For this, the Government needs to understand what policy, legislation and other measures could be introduced to raise awareness of e-waste, incentivise circular design, and encourage and enable reuse, repair and recycling. Business has well-informed views on this to feed into the Inquiry; sharing examples of current good practice and looking ahead for opportunities to do things differently. This is not limited to retailers, manufacturers and waste management providers involved in the industry: as employers and purchasers of electronic equipment, all businesses have a role to play.

Here are five practical ways businesses could support the transition:

Shine the spotlight on e-waste – Help to bring the problems of e-waste into public consciousness, in the same way as we have done with plastics. Look for opportunities to educate customers, employees, households and students on opportunities to recycle, the value of metals and other components, and the environmental impacts associated with incorrect disposal.

Make the right procurement choices – Start asking suppliers the right questions about electronic products/services, including around sustainable design, materials usage, opportunities to repair, putting take-back schemes in place, and opportunities to rent/lease equipment rather than purchase it.

Make your electronic products last longer – Look for opportunities to repair equipment. Business in the Community, for example, purchases its IT equipment from a specific brand and usually choose the same model which allows it to use parts from non-working laptops to prolong the life of laptops with minor faults.

Look for opportunities for reuse – If your electronic equipment can no longer be used by your organisation, there are numerous companies which can help you to securely remove the data and refurbish the equipment for reuse. Regent Street Management Direct, a part of JLL, partnered with Premier Sustain to refurbish redundant computers and monitors to donate them to Centrepoint, a charity providing support for young homeless people

Provide opportunities to recycle – Create easily accessible return schemes for householders and employees. Dixons Carphone recently introduced a new doorstop service collecting customers’ used small electrical items for recycling when large household appliances are being delivered. In its first six months the service doubled the amount of small electrical items being recycled by the company.

With business driving forward these practical solutions and working with Government to create a framework of legislation and incentives to unlock systemic changes, we have the opportunity to transform the sector before we drown in the tsunami of e-waste we are creating. Let’s seize the moment.

Libby Sandbrook, head of circular economy, Business in the Community

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