Electronic products are a vital part of our daily lives. Particularly during the pandemic, we have needed the connectivity they bring more than ever before. However, our old electronics products contain many valuable materials which often go unused or – worse – fall into the informal sector or landfill.
The opportunity is vast. Materials in electronic devices no longer being used are thought to be worth $57 billion annually. In Europe alone there are thought to be 100 million mobile phones lying in drawers. Companies are investing in new ways to increase device collection and new technologies to increase both the quality and the amount of material recovered.
Many companies see an opportunity for a responsibile and sustainable supply of finite materials, with a lower impact on the planet than mined materials. These opportunities are leading the world’s biggest technology companies to redesign how they use and reuse materials. Apple is pioneering new methods to improve the quality and quantity of materials recovery by investing in robots to ‘de-manufacture’ its electronics, and has incorporated circular design into its roadmap for carbon neutrality by 2030. Healthcare technology provider Philips, meanwhile, is rethinking whether its customers need to actually own the products they use.
Solutions like these are at the heart of the New Circular Vision for Electronics, created by the World Economic Forum in support of the UN’s E-Waste Coalition. The gains could be considerable: gold, extracted from electronics, produces 80% less CO2 than mining; 15 jobs and 110 training opportunities could be created for every 1,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment waste collected and sorted. A new report by the World Economic Forum also explores how some of these strategies can be enabled through international trade.
This is what six technology companies are doing to move to a circular economy.
As one of the world’s biggest technology companies, Apple’s actions resonate strongly across the entire technology sector. With the launch of iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, Apple achieved an industry first of using 100% recycled rare earth elements in the Taptic Engine. This is in addition to its use of 100% recycled aluminum enclosures for new iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch, and Mac products, and recycled tin, plastics and tungsten across components of numerous devices.
The company has committed to achieving a 100% carbon neutral supply chain and product line by 2030. It’s commitment to circularity is one of the strongest levers the company is pulling to meet carbon neutrality – with an ambition to make their products from entirely 100% recycled and renewable materials. ‘Dave’ is helping with this goal.
After Daisy, Apple’s iPhone disassembly robot, has taken apart an iPhone into several discrete components, Dave, another Apple robot, disassembles iPhones’ Taptic Engines (which provide tactile feedback) to recover materials like rare earth elements, along with other important materials like tungsten and steel.
Apple is building “reverse supply chains” not only to collect their own devices, but with recyclers to take deliver recycled materials at the same quality and purity levels of newly mined materials.
In offices around the world, Cisco phones sit on every desk. The technology company is now making many of them with closed loop plastics.
“We are committed to moving from a linear economy, where products are used and then thrown away, to a circular economy that makes better use of our limited natural resources,” the company says. Schemes to make that happen include repairing equipment in the field, reusing products internally and resale programmes.
Cisco’s Takeback and Reuse programme, which encourages equipment owners to return hardware at the end of its life, claims to reuse or recycle 99.6% of products.
Cisco says these processes aren’t just environmentally sound, they also make business sense, saving millions of dollars annually on expensive raw materials and waste.
From computer hard drives to headphones, ‘rare earth’ magnets are a crucial – and mostly unknown – component. They’re hard to mine and expensive, so recycling makes sense. In 2018, Dell Technologies partnered with a number of companies to create a new ‘closed loop’ process of recycling these magnets, by sourcing them from old equipment collected through ‘takeback’ programmes.
Dell also worked with Carbon Conversions, a start-up based in South Carolina, to develop a new reclaimed carbon fiber technology for use in select laptops which is lighter, less expensive and more eco-friendly.
By 2030, for every product a customer buys, Dell has pledged to reuse or recycle an equivalent product. Recycling will also be a high priority: 100% of packaging will be recycled, while more than half of the materials that products are made of will be from recycled or renewable sources.
Many electronics products contain components which are made from resins; the powder that makes resin is hard to recycle and accounts for a great deal of e-waste in landfill. It’s an area where Huawei has made progress, experimenting with turning resin powder into trash cans and baskets.
Huawei has also leveraged its global presence by setting up 1,300 recycling stations in 48 countries and regions around the world. The company’s service centres also run a paid recycling programme, which took back around 300,000 used spare parts – weighing 60 tons – every month last year.
Huawei has put in place a credit-based programme to incentivize recycling. Originally developed in China, its businesses in nine countries now offer Huawei customers discounts in return for recycling.
Microsoft President, Brad Smith, has announced a goal of zero waste for “direct operations, products and packaging by 2030”.
Part of this will involve tackling waste in data centres – vast consumers of power and equipment. Under the company’s new plan, Microsoft Circular Centers will reuse and repurpose servers and hardware in these facilities.
Microsoft also wants to tackle plastic waste. Some 400 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced each year, according to the UN – and roughly half of that is packaging. It’s why Microsoft has pledged to eliminate single-use plastics from its packaging by 2025, from plastic films on consumer products to the packaging around big equipment in its data centres.
At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos last year, Frans van Houten, the CEO of healthcare technology provider, Philips, made a pledge. His company would take back and repurpose as many large medical systems as its customers were prepared to return to it, he said. Philips says it’s on track to meet the goal this year.
Mr van Houten, the co-chair of PACE – the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy – has written for Agenda on his concern about the unsustainability of current consumption patterns (90 billion tons of natural resources are extracted every year – more than 12 tons for every person on the planet).
With that in mind, Philips aims to shift away from an ownership to an access model of services – giving customers the use of equipment over a time period, rather than waiting for them to break and be discarded. The company says it aims to generate 15% of sales from circular products and services by 2020.
This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum.