Each year, a new wave of computers, smartphones and accessories spill onto the market with smaller components made from increasingly complex materials. Even as awareness of e-waste has grown and the circular economy has begun to spread its wings, progress is being undermined by a disposable culture in the tech industry.
A new Greenpeace study suggests consumers have had enough. A survey of 6,000 people across the U.S., China, Mexico, Russia, Germany and South Korea revealed that over half of consumers want manufacturers to release fewer phone models and do more to help them recycle their old devices.
Respondents reported they currently owned an average of at least three phones (in use and not in use) – and the average was more than five in Russia and Mexico. More than one third indicated “getting a more up-to-date device” was the reason for their most recent phone purchase, while less than three in ten answered it was because their previous phone was broken or got lost.
With new designs released each year, waste companies are struggling to adapt their sorting technology. Smartphones, for instance, can include up to 50 different types of metal. Similarly, plastics can contain over 25 different compounds, which makes recycling more difficult.
How to engage consumers as suppliers in a circular economy
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“When you look at the design of products, you see several trends that are not helping enable the circular economy,” said Dr. Tjerk Wardenaar, who coordinates the European Union (EU)-funded NEW_InnoNet project, which is re-examining value chains.
“You see a trend of miniaturisation, everything has to be smaller and smarter, and this makes it more difficult at the end of the value chain to recover materials,” he continued. “Second, you see increasingly complex materials that are more difficult to take apart at the end of the lifecycle. Then, there is an increasing and rapid update of products.”
Several EU-funded projects are working to help solve different aspects of the problem. For example, NEW_InnoNet brought together experts from different industries with specializations in electronic, automotive and plastic production to identify bottlenecks for the near-zero-waste economy. It aims to highlight key research and innovation priorities that have thus far been overlooked due to a lack of communication between specialists at different parts of the value chain. Another project, UrBAN-WASTE, is developing strategies to support the reuse, recycling, collection and disposal of waste with a focus on cities (where almost 80 percent of the European population lives). Eleven cities have been selected to pilot the implementation of circular economy strategies among different groups such as hotels, restaurants and municipalities. In October, WRAP announced an EU LIFE-funded project to explore commercial opportunities for recovering critical raw materials and precious metals from everyday electronic products. EU recycling laws that require member states to collect certain amounts of e-waste are beginning to take effect. By 2019, collection targets in the EU will rise to 85 percent of the weight of electronic equipment sold, The Guardian reports.
“The recycling rate of mobile phones is particularly low compared to other electronic goods, and people don’t know if they can contact recycling companies, the government or the brand. Most don’t know how to wipe data, but that’s the first thing certified recycling should provide,” Greenpeace global detox campaigner Chih An Lee told The Guardian.
“Recycling isn’t the solution to the problem, but it is an essential step. In the future, companies need to reshape their business model to move towards a circular economy. They should make profit from good recycling, recovering materials and producing long-lasting batteries. Consumers need to make their demands heard.”
The Greenpeace survey showed that more than 80 percent of consumers wanted smartphones to be designed to last and be easy to fix. Only 9 percent of German respondents had the experience of having damaged phones repaired by the manufacturer, while China enjoyed the highest with 36 percent. In South Korea, 57 percent of respondents had sold or given their old phone to a specialized recycling company, but only 11 percent of respondents in Germany said the same. Nearly half of all respondents believe that mobile phone manufacturers should be the most responsible for making recycling accessible; the sentiment was particularly strong in Germany (61 percent) and China (53 percent).
The release of the findings marked the start of a campaign to “make electronics truly innovative” and challenge the industry to reduce energy and toxic chemical use, eliminate programmed obsolescence, and improve e-waste recycling and workers’ health. Greenpeace envisions devices that are designed to be long-lasting, “toxic-free,” and easy to repair and dismantle to facilitate a closed-loop system.
Some companies, such as Fairphone and Nascent have already begun to design for such a future in electronics. The Fairphone 2 was designed to be longer-lasting and repairable as well as ethically sourced; the company established traceable supplies for all four conflict minerals in June. The Nascent Objects platform, launched in March, offers a customizable system of interchangeable electronic modules that can be used to assemble a variety of consumer products.
Meanwhile, Canadian mineral processing company Mineworx says it has developed a nontoxic leach formula that extracts precious metals from ores and e-waste that is safer for the environment than existing cyanide-based formulas. Cyanide is the dominant leaching agent used in gold processing, but it creates toxic wastewater and has been banned in some U.S. states, European countries and South American countries.
Mineworx’s “HM X-leach” formula is made of food-grade, organic ingredients and is reusable. In a test performed on e-waste scrap, HM X-leach accumulated 2,600 parts per million of gold in the solution in less than an hour of soaking. Mineworx CEO Duane Nelson told Resource Recycling that the formula matches cyanide’s recovery rate of 97 percent in about four hours. While some of the formula is consumed in the process, the remaining liquid is reusable. The ingredients in HM X-leach are more expensive than cyanide, which makes the reusability especially helpful.
“We are very excited with the results of the HM X-leach formula,” Nelson said in a statement. “It has been proven by independent analysis to be non-toxic and faster than typical cyanide solutions on a number of different ores, concentrates and tailings. The HM X-leach is safer to use, offers faster dissolution rates and offers much broader operational parameters.”
The new formula could both significantly reduce the risks and environmental impact of mineral processing, and open up opportunities for mineral processing in areas where the use of cyanide is banned. Mining company Iberian Minerals purchased Mineworx in December, and has since filed for a patent for HM X-leach and created a new subsidiary, HMX Solutions, to pursue commercialization of the formula. Nelson foresees potential in e-waste, in particular.
“E-scrap is very, very rich in precious metals compared to standard ore,” Nelson told Resource Recycling. “I see e-waste as some of the low-hanging fruit.”