Longevity or recyclability? Policy shift set to impact e-waste, says techUK
Eco-design is the "unsung" hero of climate action, and a host of new regulatory frameworks could soon create an ideal marketplace for technology businesses that are championing the circular economy.
That is the view of techUK’s head of programmes Susanne Baker, who claimed that waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) frameworks - whereby 80% of e-waste is treated by “crude” shredders - could be subsided by new regulations that place an emphasis on the durability and reparability of electronic devices.
Speaking at the Resource Efficiency theatre at Day one of edie Live this week (23 May), Baker noted that the EU's Circular Economy Package has encouraged organisations to generate methodologies to address material efficiency of products. These standards would promote longer use of products in efforts to keep them out of WEEE streams.
“For me, eco-design is one of the unsung heroes of climate action - every year it is eliminating more than the annual energy consumption of Italy,” Baker said. “I think these standards are going to have a huge impact, at scale, on product design.
“There are going to be questions about the trade-offs when the European Commission starts legislating this and there’s a risk on how consumers, manufacturers and repairers react to this and whether it prompts investment or will shredders still dominate the recycling life of WEEE.”
The Material Efficiency Standards are a set of 10 ideals that define how energy-related products are produced and should be ready by March 2019. They focus on assessing the durability, upgradability and ability to repair, re-use and re-manufacture products, with extra focus also placed on recycling practices. The Standards are a subset of the EU Eco-Design Directive for energy-related products. So far, 28 eco-design regulations have been adopted under the Directive, known as implementing measures, and three voluntary agreements have been recognised. Products that fall under the Directive include televisions, computers, water heaters and lighting amongst others.
By 2020, the Directive is expected to deliver savings of around 175Mtoe of primary energy annually, although the main focus is on the energy use of the products rather than the materiality.
Once implemented, the frameworks would create a regulatory environment that champions eco-design and the circular economy. However, Baker noted that the regulatory frameworks would mirror current purchasing trends by consumers.
Using the smartphone sector as an example, Baker used research from Accenture to highlight that 47% of people aren’t planning on upgrading their phones in the next 12 months, despite the sector’s constant upgrade business model. Currently, only 7% of smartphones are recycled, yet there is a “thriving” market for used devices. Around 23% of smartphones are handed to other users and 41% are traded-in or sold privately.
O2 has been leading this movement. The company launched its O2 Recycle initiative in 2009 and has saved the company’s customers more than £135m by encouraging them to hand-in older smartphone models. This has reduced emissions by 10,000 tonnes and slashed water use by 26 million litres in the process. The recycling scheme forms part of O2’s Think Big programme, which aims to help customers create positive impacts across the globe. O2 claims that the frequency of recycling for old mobile models saw £51 paid back to consumers every minute in 2015 and 95% of the phones are refurbished and re-sold.
This demand from consumers has seen O2 shift its product model to account for “two buckets” of consumers; those that want the latest technology and those that prefer cheaper devices built for longevity.
Baker claimed that a rise in data platforms, including the Internet of Things (IoT) was reducing demand for new smartphones. Software updates and access to the cloud were encouraging users to keep older models rather than discarding them for newer purchases.
“IoT growth hasn’t been as strong as expected, and that’s partly due to concerns over security and privacy,” Baker concluded. “I think there’s also concerns about price. But the used smartphone market is thriving. It’s actually growing three to four times faster than the normal one.”