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With electronics detritus growing 4% every year, Angeli Mehta looks at how the EU and leading companies are trying to ameliorate the impact of our global addiction to smartphones
Consider the washing machine: one of life’s essentials. Yet it’s usually cheaper to buy a new one than to repair the old. That’s often simply because it’s impossible to get access to replace the inexpensive bearings that enable the drum to rotate smoothly. For French industrial designer Christopher Santerre, it’s as if you had to buy a new car because the brake pads are worn.
He and fellow designer Julien Phedyaeff have designed and prototyped a washing machine that can be repaired and upgraded so it lasts for at least 20 years. It’s called L’Increvable, which translates as “tireless”. “Is there a market: will people pay more for the product that is more durable? We are convinced about this,” says Santerre.
So far, the pair have been unable to find a washing machine manufacturer who shares that conviction. “We want someone who wants to do the project. It will start with low volumes [so] they will have to believe in the project and want to push it with us, to disturb the market.”
Just 20% of e-waste is properly recycled. Much of the rest goes to landfill or is incinerated
In 2016, we generated nearly 45 million tonnes of e-waste globally. It’s almost impossible to comprehend how much that really is. The term e-waste covers everything with a plug or battery; from irons and toasters to mobile phones and washing machines.
The material value of those devices is reckoned to be €55 billion, containing, as they do, precious metals like gold, silver, platinum and palladium; as well as hazardous heavy metals like mercury and cadmium. However, just 20% of e-waste is properly recycled. Much of the rest goes to landfill or is incinerated. Some will be “recycled” by impoverished workers, with serious health and environmental consequences.
We’re generating some 3% to 4% more e-waste every year, partly because we all own more devices and upgrade them regularly to the latest technology or faster speed. Research suggests that people are starting to delay mobile phone upgrades, but smartphone plans usually mean we can get a new one every two years, no matter how durable manufacturers say their products are, or how long they’ll upgrade the software that make the devices work. When discarded, equipment still works perfectly well – it’s just become “out-dated”.
Researchers in Canada estimate that all those smartphones, laptops, and tablets, together with the infrastructure that enables our virtual activities, will be responsible for 3.5% of global CO2 emissons by next year, and 14% by 2040. The smartphone is the real killer: emissions are expected to reach 125 megatons (Mt) of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year in 2020, compared with 17 Mt CO2e per year in 2010. Up to 95% of those emissions are caused by production. So keeping phones in use as long as possible, and then recycling them, is crucial.
A report earlier this year, on behalf of UN agencies, states: “It is time to reconsider e-waste, re-evaluate the electronics industry and reboot the system for the benefit of industry, consumer, worker, health of humankind and the environment.”
In the consumer market, more than 100 million old devices are just sitting at home gathering dust
Ironically, business-to-business is accustomed to a culture of repair. IT services and hardware group Cisco “has basically been doing this forever”, according to Darrel Stickler, the company’s global lead for environmental sustainability. When Cisco sells equipment, it often sells a service contract alongside. Recovering and repairing equipment quickly is vital because that equipment usually forms the backbone of a customer’s business. Usually, equipment can be repaired up to three times; and that when it does reach the end of its life, whole components and assemblies can be re-used. Otherwise, materials are recovered through recycling and sold into the global commodities market.
In 2012, HP opened a Technology Renewal Centre in Scotland, for government and business customers. Once reconditioned and tested, equipment is either rebuilt to specific customer requirements or resold. It handles 9,000 laptops, PCs and workstations a week, and the re-use rate is 95%, excluding components that have to be recycled for data security.
But it’s different in the consumer market, where more than 100 million old devices are just sitting at home gathering dust. The first task is persuading consumers to recycle them. Some companies are partnering with third parties to recycle used hardware; others will refurbish old devices and recycle components.
In the UK, Mazuma Mobile will pay for used iPhones and refurbish them to be sold again, while its sister company iMend will repair iPhones at home or at work. In the US, Hyla Mobile says it’s completed over 50 million mobile phone trade-ins since it was set up in 2009, repurposing and reusing them, or recycling components. It predicts the secondary mobile device market will almost double in value from $19.7bn to $38.9bn in 2025.
Dutch company Fairphone has developed a modular design so that customers can repair their own phones, and upgrade components. It began with the idea of selling an ethical phone, made without conflict minerals, as well as a more sustainable one. Last month, its model 2 (on the market since 2015) sold out, but it has stockpiled three years’ worth of spare parts. Google once explored the idea of a modular phone that would have new capabilities added over time – but without users having to replace the whole phone. But that idea was abandoned.
Approaches like l’Increvable and Fairphone need to be replicated to tackle the growing mountain of discarded products. Here EU policy will help, and potentially have ripple effects across the globe. From 2021, product designers will have to think about disassembly and repair, so that key spare parts can be replaced by professionals without causing damage, and with tools that are common and not proprietary. The legislation won’t go far enough to help L’Increvable get off the ground, because there are caveats. For example, manufacturers will be allowed to bundle parts such that it may not be cheaper to repair the one small worn item.
Nonetheless, it represents a world-leading ambition, according to Stéphane Arditi, policy manager on circular economy, products and waste for the European Environmental Bureau. “We have been fighting for this for the past 10 years: it is quite a success.”
Moreover, when products are dismantled at the end of life, hazardous components will have to be easier to remove, which will aid recycling. “Instead of discarding, we will be repairing, but we will have to wait a few years to see if the attempt to extend life has worked.”
In the US, 18 states have passed 'right to repair' legislation giving independent repairers the access to tools, spare parts and documentation
Alongside the design requirements will come new energy-efficiency labelling intended to help consumers make more informed choices about the efficiency of products. Together the energy-efficiency labelling and eco-design requirements are expected to save over 130 terawatt hours (TWh) per year, or almost 5% of the EU’s entire electricity consumption in 2018.
Europe’s Joint Research Centre, which provides scientific advice on policy, is also working on a repair scoring system. This, says Arditi, could be transformed into a labelling system to point the consumer to the most energy-efficient and repairable products. “Energy and extension of lifetime go hand in hand, so the [economic] calculation changes for consumers. Indeed, a forthcoming report from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), will demonstrate that for many EU appliances, including smartphones, it makes no sense to update them because energy efficiency has improved so much already. So the embodied carbon emissions become so much more significant.”
Arditi sees a bolder ambition of industrial transformation, with a new type of service economy that creates valued jobs in extending the life of products, and cutting emissions.
Meanwhile, in the US, 18 states have passed “right to repair” legislation giving independent repairers the access to tools, spare parts and documentation to enable them to carry out repairs. That doesn’t necessarily mean manufacturers will make it easy to repair equipment, and some have voiced concerns about threats to intellectual property.
Can we ever get to a completely closed loop system? The laws of physics mean we probably can’t get to a 100%, says Richard Kirkman, UK chief technology and innovation officer for waste, water and energy management group Veolia. “But we’re so far away, it’s a question of how can we improve what we’ve got.”
E-waste is a particularly complex problem. “The traditional route was to put it through a shredder and recover as much as you could,” he explains. Veolia has designed its own robotic system for dismantling TVs and monitors, and can now collect and process 300,000 of them every year.
Apple estimates that the recycled copper it's using avoids 60,000 tonnes of mined ore
By weight, it’s processing four times as much as it did when the plant opened in 2016, but it’s not even half of what consumers discard. Veolia’s system can recover ferrous metals, plastics, glass, precious metals from circuit boards, copper from cables, and even the fluorescent powders from cathode tubes. Fewer than 7% of components are recovered and used as fuels. “This is the future for electronic equipment,” suggests Kirkman.
And, indeed, it is the approach being taken by Apple, as part of its eventual ambition to extract nothing from the earth. The company created material impact profiles for 45 raw materials used in its products, and is focusing initial efforts at closing the loop on aluminium, cobalt, copper, stainless steel, tin, tungsten and rare earth elements. It’s working on cutting emissions from aluminium production – a highly energy intensive process, but because aluminium accumulates impurities each time it is recycled, Apple has developed an alloy that enables it to add aluminium scrap without affecting performance.
Together with Mitsubishi, Apple has developed a robot, now in its second iteration as Daisy, to disassemble iPhones at sites in the Netherlands and Texas. The sequence of four robots that comprise Daisy can get through 200 iPhones an hour, and components like the logic board and camera are sent to specialist recyclers who can recover cobalt, tin and tungsten. Apple estimates that the recycled copper used its using avoids 60,000 tonnes of mined ore; and in 2019 using recycled tin will avoid almost 29,000 tonnes of tin ore. After a pilot, Apple is now using recycled cobalt in batteries for its products.
One of the biggest challenges for Cisco to scale closed-loop recycling, is getting its gear back: its durability means there is a thriving secondary market, says Stickler. “If we don’t have a steady stream of used products coming back, we can’t meet the customer timetable – that’s the manufacturing challenge.” He adds that: “we’ve had 100-plus years of developing the forward supply chain: we have to recreate that on what I call the backside of the moon.” Reverse supply-chain logistics is where the hard work needs to begin.
He foresees companies joining up to explore interlocking relationships where one producer’s “waste” is another’s raw material.
If we’re going to tackle waste and turn into commercially viable products, we need data. Kirkman explains how Veolia decided to analyse what was collected in its street-sweeping operations. Along with the twigs and pebbles, cans and bottles was dust that contained precious metals like platinum and palladium. The source was the catalytic converters used in car exhausts. It turned out that the palladium was present in the same concentrations as in a palladium mine. “We couldn’t commercially recover it, but what it did was to change the thinking in our company, to analyse and measure [waste]”.
Mining gold from discarded electronics produces 80% less emissions than mining it from ore
Now a team of researchers has developed an ambitious EU-wide urban mine platform that reveals material flows to help recyclers, industry and policymakers to make informed choices.
It estimates there are some 450m tonnes of batteries, electrical and electronic devices and cars across homes and businesses in the EU that contain valuable products that could be used now or in the future. They provide a home-grown supply of increasingly limited resources like cobalt and lithium, which are used in batteries; indium used in touch screens, and neodymium, which is vital for making permanent magnets in motors.
Not only are materials in all those dishwashers and smartphones valuable, like gold, and platinum, but they’re polluting to mine. “Mining” gold from discarded electronics produces 80% less emissions than mining it from ore.
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.
This article is part of the in-depth Circular economy briefing. See also: