Can a circular economy eliminate e-waste?

Top tech companies including Google, Microsoft and Dell have released a vision for a circular economy for electronics by 2030, in order to eliminate e-waste.

Computers, phones and other devices are being thrown away at increasing rates, whether from breakdown, planned obsolescence or consumers simply wishing for a new model. More than 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated every year, which is more than the combined weight of all commercial airliners ever made. This comprises 2% of solid waste streams – and 70% of hazardous waste that ends up in landfill.

Much of this waste still contains valuable raw materials such as iron, copper and gold, estimated to be worth USD$57 billion annually. Millions of people around the world – mostly in developing countries – expose themselves to hazards while manually extracting useful materials from these products.

This growing ecological and human health issue has led the global Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP) to release a roadmap on how to not only recycle these materials using safe and fair labour, but also maximise the products throughout their lifespans.

The roadmap uses the idea of the circular economy, which recognises that resources are limited and promotes the elimination of waste by recycling products to form their components into new ones.

The CEP maps out a path to a circular economy for electronics by 2030, considering the value chain from manufacturing to logistics to material recovery.

The ideal path, as outlined in their report, would involve designing products for circularity (for example, building a device from scratch-resistant materials to reduce refurbishment costs), manufacturing them from second-hand materials, selling products as circular, creating formal collection and sorting procedures, and recycling products in certified facilities.

“There’s no time to waste in finding sustainable solutions for consumption and production,” says Dominic Waughray from the World Economic Forum, where the roadmap was released. “The roadmap and vision set forth by the Circular Electronics Partnership will create the necessary momentum to maximize resources, transform value chains and make the circular transition in electronics a reality.”

The CEP encompasses dozens of leading tech companies and organisations, including Cisco, Dell Technologies, Glencore, Google, KPMG International, and Microsoft.

Though a roadmap is not a guarantee of a circular economy for electronics by 2030, it’s a step that will hopefully lead to firmer commitments from tech giants.

To learn more about the circular economy, register for our next COSMOS Briefing.

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