Over the years, technology has revolutionized our world. At the same time, the increased demand for electronic devices has created the world’s fastest-growing waste stream: e-waste. This overwhelming flood of screens, cables, chips and motherboards is fuelled by our love of devices, many of which are connected to the internet. Last year the number of smartphones grew larger than the number of actual people on this planet, and the number of devices is projected to grow to 25-50 billion by 2020, reflecting lowering costs and rising demand.
While more electronic devices are part of the problem, they also can be a big part of the solution. Smartphones are pocket-sized mines of precious metals and rare earth elements. A typical iPhone is estimated to house around 0.034g of gold, 0.34g of silver, 0.015g of palladium and less than one-thousandth of a gram of platinum. It also contains the less valuable but still significant aluminium (25g) and around 15g of copper.
And that’s just the start. Smartphones also contain a range of rare earth elements – elements that are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust but extremely difficult to mine and extract economically – including scandium, yttrium, as well as elements 57–71. Then there is the plastic, the glass and the battery.
In case you’re thinking of running a little electronic gold or silver mines in your room, the small amounts of these minerals in each smartphone should make you think twice. However, once you start thinking on a large scale, it looks a lot more attractive: one million mobile phones could deliver nearly 16 tonnes of copper, 350kg of silver, 34kg of gold and 15kg of palladium.
In 2016 alone, the raw materials which made up the e-waste produced were worth an estimated €55 billion, with the majority of this coming from the value of plastics, gold, and copper. To put into perspective, a tonne of mobile phones contains 100 times more gold than a tonne of gold ore and 6.5 times more silver than a tonne of silver ore. The earth’s richest deposits of valuable materials are sitting in landfill sites or people’s homes - maybe even in your drawer. By sourcing more materials that are recycled in a way that harms neither the environment nor people, the benefits for the industry, the planet and the health of people could be enormous. To capture this opportunity, it will be important to move towards a circular economy for electronics.
Where is e-waste generated?
Source: WEF; Lewis2011, The Global E-waste Statistics Partnership, 2018
You are more likely to find your old phone in China than in any of the neighbouring countries.
A system upgrade: a circular electronics system
By extending the life of electronic products and re-using electrical components a circular electronics system brings an even larger economic benefit, as working devices are certainly worth more than the materials they contain. These benefits can be achieved through different business models including product as a service, sharing of assets, life extension and finally recycling. To build a circular economy for electronics there are different aspects to consider.
Products need to be designed for reuse, durability and eventually safe recycling. Embracing durable designs can ensure that electronic devices are kept in circulation for longer. At the end of the day, maybe you don’t need to buy a new phone every year or two.
Buy-back or return systems
Increasingly producers of electronics could offer buy-back or return systems for old equipment. These schemes already exist and hopefully soon you will be able to get some money for your phone and recycle it in the nearest store.
Advanced recycling and recapturing
Companies and governments could work towards creating a system for closed-loop production in which all old products are collected and then the materials or components re-integrated into new ones.
Durability and repair
Companies should be ready to repair equipment they sell, something that has also been mandated by law in some countries. Second-hand electrical goods are worth more than individual components, which again are worth an order of magnitude more than the materials alone. Therefore, second use and harvesting components represent a major opportunity.
Urban mining is the production of raw materials such as metals or precious metals from waste and metal scrap. This makes it possible to obtain high quality steel from old washing machines or precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum or palladium from old mobile phones and computers. It is time for companies to start investing heavily around the globe in technology that can help extract metals and minerals from e-waste. Already one recycler in China produces more cobalt than the country mines in one year. A circular economy for electronics would maximize the amount of valuable e-waste that moves back into the production of new electronic products and components.
In a traditional supply chain goods move from the vendor to you - in other words companies develop products and you later on buy them in the shop. When a product can no longer be used, the materials will need to be collected and sent back to be reintegrated into production, so the goods start moving from you all the way back to the vendor. This is known as a reverse supply chain.
In many countries, e-waste entrepreneurs and cooperatives of e-waste workers are expanding e-waste recycling operations and experimenting with new and inclusive business models for managing e-waste effectively. However, the push for a more circular future that takes into account the environment and people living in it will not only depend on the companies and governments, you will play a crucial role in it as well. The future is bright!