How the rise of electronic recycling is contributing to a circular economy
Stewart McGrenary, Managing Director, Phonesmart Ltd | plunc.com, on the need to increase the amount of time portable electronics spend in the system.
Getting the components needed to make a mobile phone requires mining, energy, and the release of greenhouse gases. Once devices become obsolete they can easily end up in landfills. In the past, batteries and other parts were replaceable, however tech companies are increasingly opting for a closed design promoting a ‘use and throw away’ approach. Marketplaces such as eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Plunc have helped to contribute to some recycling of these devices; and whilst stats show that there is overwhelming support for recycling, actions speak louder than words and billions of tonnes worth of e-waste still ends up in landfills.
What can we do to promote recycling?
The government can launch as many campaigns as they want, but the change must begin with tech companies. Some product devices are cost and time intensive to break down and as a result they are thrown into landfill. Alternatively they end up in countries such as Ghana where metals are broken down for scrap. However, this releases harmful gases which affect the respiratory systems of workers who often work without protective clothing. Moreover, the liquids released end up in waterways. Additionally, there is an environmental cost of transporting these devices.
Apple is leading the way with the recycling of their products. They have developed a robot which breaks down their latest devices in an environmentally friendly manner and as a result, new iPhones are made from old ones. This doesn’t just help them to reach their sustainability obligations but also helps to reduce their manufacturing costs.
Notably, recycling e-waste in the country of use doesn’t just help the environment, it also creates jobs. The collection, processing and reproduction process creates mini-industries. Moreover, it provides entrepreneurs with the opportunity to export processed e-waste globally. According to the European Commission, millions of new jobs could be created by recycling electronics. However, for that to happen, there needs to be a stronger push by the government.
To encourage people to recycle electronics you need to give them an incentive, and also make it incredibly easy. Incentives can come in the way of money or vouchers. For instance, people could get vouchers for depositing their unused electronics into a machine at their local supermarket. This is convenient because they can take their electronics with them on their way to do some food shopping.
At the moment, the internet has proven to be a trendy way to recycle devices and get paid. However, this comes with roadblocks. For instance, to sell on eBay, you must:
1) Take good pictures
2) Set a price
3) Wait days or weeks for a buyer
4) Package and post the item
5) Wait for eBay to release the holds
This is a similar process with local buy and sell sites. These roadblocks have spurred the growth of ‘hassle-free’ sites such as Plunc. Sellers simply click which device they have, place the item in a postage free envelope and get money in their bank a few days later.
Many people don't realise that when devices are no longer in fashion, they can still be converted for other uses. For instance, an old smartphone can be modified into a web-connected security camera or a baby monitor. Old computers can be modified into gaming consoles with freely available software. Instead of throwing a tablet away, why not convert it to a smart alarm clock? People should be encouraged to transform their old devices into something new.
The environmental and health effects of e-waste
Electronic devices are made up of a range of metals and chemicals. When broken down in an unsafe manner, they can be released into waterways, get inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream, and lead to health complications.
A common way Western countries get rid of e-waste is to ship it on developing countries. This “out of sight out of mind” approach isn’t sustainable. We are running out of places to store e-waste; therefore, a different approach needs to be found. Notably, the UK is among the worst offenders. In developing countries children are often used to break down devices for metals. Children are especially vulnerable to the health risks that may result from e-waste exposure. As they are still growing, children’s intake of air, water and food in proportion to their weight is significantly increased compared to adults, - and with that, the risk of hazardous chemical absorption.
Moreover, some chemicals end up in waterways where communities can rely on rivers for fishing, bathing and hydration. E-waste is typically burned in order to expose valuable metals such as copper further releasing pollutants and greenhouses gases.
We can’t eliminate e-waste; however, we need to increase the time electronics spend in the system. We can do this through re-purposing and encouraging companies to make their products in an easily recyclable manner. We wouldn’t just be helping the planet, but also the economy.