The accelerating electronic waste crisis has been called a “tsunami” by the United Nations. And in 2019, it was the fastest-growing source of solid hazardous waste. The e-waste crisis is an intractable obstacle that demands wide-scale systematic solutions to how we design, consume, and dispose of electronics. The circular economy is that solution. Defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as “gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system,” a circular economy would have the impact of preserving natural resources and mitigating climate change. Integrating circular economy values requires increased energy efficiency, clean and renewable energy, as well as sustainably designed products that reduce and reuse material inputs.
Reliance on fossil fuel resources, which drive anthropogenic climate change, is not compatible in a circular economy. Designing out fossil fuel consumption starts with decreasing the energy intensity of the mining and manufacturing processes. Between 85-95 percent of the carbon footprint emanates from mining metals and manufacturing for smartphones alone.
For manufacturing facilities, heat generation is one place to reduce energy intensity. Industrial heat makes up two-thirds of industrial energy demand and relies heavily on natural gas and coal. The adoption of industrial heat pumps, which recover waste heat and increase its temperature to the point of reuse. According to a Department of Energy Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy report, that despite high upfront costs, “The net operating cost savings (reduction in purchased energy minus operating cost) is sufficient to pay back the capital investment in an acceptable time period.” Energy efficiency in the mining industry depends on reducing the intensity of the comminution process,(the crushing and grinding of materials). The comminution process consists of 50 percent of a mine's energy consumption and 10 percent of total production costs. Shifting comminution and mining operations from diesel fuels, natural gas, and coal to electrification would reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gasses. Consulting firm Ernst and Young confirmed this finding in a survey, which also showed that it would decrease operational costs and increase social license to operate.
Shrinking energy consumption will limit fossil fuel usage in the short term but will not overhaul the climate change fueling energy mix. Clean and renewable energy will be needed to power a circular electronics economy and mitigate climate change. Apple, the industry leader in smartphone production, has led the way in renewable energy procurement for its processing facilities. According to a 2020 press release, Apple had commitments from over 70 of its 200 suppliers to use 100 percent renewable energy for Apple production. Companies in the Information Communications Technology (ICT) sector, which encompasses electronics, were found to use power purchase agreements (PPAs), on-site generation, utility green power products, and renewable energy certificates (RECs) as ways to procure renewable energy.
Lessening the energy demands and carbon output of electronics is one step toward achieving circularity. To create a circular electronics sector, the industry will have to embed sustainable thinking throughout the lifecycle of its products and the materials that compose it.
Longer device lifespans and more latitude in repairing electronics will help reduce demand for new products and keep materials in use longer, but with a growing population and shrinking poverty rates, the desire for modern technology will outpace any gains. Still, companies should design their products to last and find ways to keep even their older goods relevant to today’s consumers. That said, to preserve the natural supplies that provide gold, aluminum, palladium, copper, iron, lithium, tin, silver, nickel, and other key metals, companies will need to incorporate recycled materials into their supply chains.
Mining resources from recycled electronics has proven economically beneficial and can expand finite resource pools. A 2018 study found that recovering metals from e-waste was 13 times cheaper than from mines. And the prices to mine e-waste are also dropping annually. The cost of one kg of copper decreased from $6.697/kg in 2010 to $1.684/kg in 2015 and from $8438/kg in 2010 to $1591/kg in 2015 for gold. Not only has it become cost-efficient to mine e-waste, it is also a trove of valuable resources. You can find 80 times more gold in a ton of cellphones than in an entire gold mine, and it is estimated that Americans alone dump phones worth $60 million in gold and silver combined each year.
The current linear take, make, waste economic model is a drain on our environment, public health, and natural resources. Adopting tenants of a circular economy is necessary to reduce the tsunami of e-waste entering landfills while providing more sustainable products.