When will electronics recycling become a priority for consumers, government, and business?
It needs to happen soon, given that if you piled the 5.3 billion old mobile devices currently in people’s homes on top of each other, you’d have a 31,000-mile-high tower — one eighth of the distance to the Moon.
(Don’t) take me to the Moon
The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum, an nternational nonprofit, estimates 5.3 billion of the 16 billion mobile devices in use today will become e-waste this year. Assuming each phone is 9mm thick (iPhone 14 is 7.8mm), if you piled them together the pillar would be higher than the International Space Station’s orbit.
Think about this: each of these devices contains rare, valuable, and recyclable materials such as gold, silver, palladium and more. These are substances that are hard to source, have great value, and would be better recycled. Given the extent to which some of these materials are derived from conflict zones in which young children harvest these metals, sometimes at gun point, it seems irresponsible not to recycle more of them.
The supply is finite and the human and economic cost of not doing so is consequential.
The world’s biggest smartphone maker, Apple, does seem to be connecting the dots on its responsibility here. The company uses recycled materials across its products and has invested in systems to recycle components from old devices.
It is also working to create a closed-loop manufacturing process. That should mean that all products are recycled, and new products are manufactured using 100% recycled and renewable materials.
At present just 20% of all the material used in Apple products in 2021 is recycled. Dig a little deeper though and it’s clear the company has achieved some good outcomes. In 2021, its products included:
- 45% certified recycled rare earth elements.
- 30% certified recycled tin, including the solder on logic boards.
- 13% certified recycled cobalt, used in iPhone batteries that can be disassembled by Apple’s recycling robot Daisy and returned to market.
- Certified recycled gold began seeing use in the iPhone 13 series. To achieve this milestone, Apple pioneered industry-leading levels of traceability to build a gold supply chain of exclusively recycled content.
These achievements show progress.
Apple’s transparency on the matter also sets it apart in an industry characterized by silence on the topic, and serve to reinforce the need for industry and government to do more. “Preventing waste and recovering important raw materials from e-waste is crucial to avoid putting more strain on the world’s resources,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the environment, oceans andfFisheries.
Sinkevičius agrees on the need to build circular manufacturing processes, saying: “Only by establishing a circular economy for electronics, the EU will continue to lead in the efforts to urgently address the fast-growing problem of e-waste.”
All those older devices add up
In 2017, the world generated 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste and only 20% was recycled properly, according to the EU, which also noted that mobile device chargers contribute a hefty 24 million pounds of e-waste each year.
The WEEE Forum warns that small electronics items such as phones, toothbrushes, and cameras produce 24.5 million tons of ewaste a year — about 8% of total annual waste.
Globally, the response is confusing. While the EU mandates that all manufacturers should move to USB-C for power supplies to reduce e-waste, in Brazil the government is fining Apple millions for daring to remove device chargers from the box.
This isn’t just a waste management problem. It’s a resource allocation challenge that must be addressed to continue to deliver the technology solutions humans need to have any chance of meeting climate targets.
To put this into context, to meet rapidly growing demand for energy storage and EVs, the world by 2050 will need 20 times the quantity of lithium mined in 2021, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
That organization, which gathers and reports data across the lithium industry, warns that all the lithium mined in the world in 2021 will meet just one month’s demand by 2040. While it may be true that the search for alternative battery replacement technologies may one day deliver results, it surely makes sense to recycle more while that effort continues.
Apple has previously explained that from just one metric ton of iPhone components taken apart by Apple’s recycling robots, recyclers can recover the amount of gold and copper companies would typically extract from 2,000 metric tons of mined rock.
You won’t be driving many Apple Cars if the materials don’t exist to make them. You may even be forced to use one of those old-fashioned Teslas by then.
Beginning to see the light?
The WEEE claims consumers hoard old electrical devices for the following reasons:
- They might use it again in the future (46%) .
- They plan on selling or giving it away (15%).
- It has sentimental value (13%).
- It might have value in the future (9%).
- They don’t know how to dispose of it (7%).
The presence of sensitive data is another concern.
Like many electronics manufacturers, Apple does offer recycling schemes for old electronics. I’ve glanced through the company’s Environmental Progress Report but can’t quite see any insight to show how successful this is. But in overall terms, even Greenpeace seems to think Apple is heading in the right direction.
In contrast, the world’s second biggest smartphone manufacturer, Samsung, seems to have work to do. That company has previously said its own recycling program took in just 38,000 of the tens of millions of old phones it has sold since 2015.
While it’s possible many those devices may still be in use, the number leaves a lot to be desired – it’s probably under 1% of all old devices being collected. But things may already have improved.
There are other routes than take-back schemes. WEEE Forum members, for instance, are attempting to put e-waste collection in the public eye and in public space with initiatives such as collection boxes in supermarkets and PO Boxes to return old devices. All the data suggests there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
A recently published UN paper makes numerous suggestions, including agreements around baseline standards. The UN has also introduced a free, certificated, online e-waste training course to help increase awareness and stimulate action.
I personally think that when it comes to climate action— and with so much at stake — it isn’t enough to outsource the response to industry; a more coordinated international approach needs to be attempted, which could be evidenced in new families of product standard.
But any business can help itself and its employees by creating its own internal e-waste removal policies, extending to handling the process for workers within existing waste management contracst.
“Over the past decade, the growth in generated e-waste has been considerably higher than the growth in recycling,” warned Dr. Kees Baldé, a lead researcher at Global e-Waste Monitor. “Thus, it is important to remind people of the importance of reusing or returning every single piece of electronics or electrical product that is forgotten about in household drawers.”
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