Smart devices and smart choices: what lies in the middle?

Electronic waste, also called E-waste, is one of the Europe’s fastest-growing waste streams, with less than 40% recycled (1). Electronic devices and appliances – from intelligent washing machines to our smartphones and IT devices – have taken over modern life in light of their high functionality and technology that inevitably call for their indispensable use in the current lifestyle paradigm. Yet, the waste they produce is a hurdle that cannot be neglected or ignored, as the majority of these devices are thrown away after use, causing the release of harmful substances that are detrimental to human health and the environment. 

But let’s take one step at a time. First of all, what is e-waste?

Electrical and electronic waste includes various products discarded after use. Large household appliances are the most frequently collected, accounting for over half of the collected e-waste streams, followed by IT and telecommunication equipment (laptops and printers), equipment and photovoltaic panels (video cameras, fluorescent lamps), and small household appliances. 7.2% of other categories fall into electrical tools and medical devices. 

Source: Eurostat 2020

Within the European Union, the recycling of e-waste varies across countries. 

In 2017, for example, 81% of electrical and electronic waste in Croatia was recycled, a share that is much higher if compared to 21% in Malta. (1) 

The infographic below shows Eurostat’s exact recycling rate of e-waste in EU countries.

Source: Eurostat 2020

The new Circular Economy Action Plan issued by the European Commission in 2020 set the reduction of electronics and e-waste as one of its priorities. Accordingly, the EU enacted laws banning several chemicals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, which are proven to cause serious environmental and health problems. (12) Prevention of pollution of the environment and decreasing the risk to those involved in e-waste recycling that contains potentially harmful substances becomes the primary goal of the circular modern economy plan. (1)

As the research shows, many rare minerals that were “mandatory” or, in better terms, needed for modern technology came from countries that do not have human rights regulations. MEPs have passed rules that require European importers of rare earth minerals to avoid inadvertently supporting human rights abuse; importers are obliged to conduct background checks on their suppliers and then act accordingly. (1)

E-waste in numbers

In 2021, significant electronic waste occurred with 57.4 million tonnes (2) of e-waste discarded, a huge cifre that anticipated an expected annual growth rate of 3-4% (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), which translates into the alarming fact that by 2030 e-waste will reach approximately 70 million tons. (2) The growth in the consumption patterns of electronic devices that are additionally subject to quick replacement with new ones that have just been released on the market, can make this number go even higher, also considering the limited range of options for repairing broken electronics. The significant issue in e-waste comes from the fast development of new electronic devices, which alongside the rise of the market demands, leads to the sudden social urge to exchange older items and catch up with the changing trends. Overall, worldwide electronic waste has been appropriately recycled only by 17.4%. In light of this data, e-waste represents a significant opportunity to participate in a circular economy plan on a global scale. 

Pascal Leroy, Director General of WEEE, claimed:

“In Europe, one out of seven electrical devices in the household is sitting in drawers because it is not used or has stopped working.
In France only, 5 kilograms of [electrical] products per person are non-functional [while] 17kg are rarely used.”

A problem that as Mr. Leroy highlighted connects with the critical opportunities for improving recycling options of e-waste and making it easily accessible for people and organisations. (3)

Experts agree that individual consumers are not the only ones who need to shoulder responsibility but the systemic failure of more extensive systemic solutions triggered by the linear approach at the core of manufacturing, ownership, and disposal. A company makes a product, and once it is purchased, the sole responsibility for that product (except for manufacturing defects) passes onto the consumer who most likely throws it away (4). Lisa McLean, chief executive of NSW Circular [ https://www.nswcircular.org/ ], a non-profit research and advocacy group, claims that this model of putting absolute pressure on the planet’s finite resources is inherently unsustainable. Industries and policymakers as for the European Union institutions actions are essential in creating recycling and repair systems that consumers can easily access. Magdalena Charytanowicz of the WEEE Forum [ https://weee-forum.org/ ]  once stated that consumers are inclined to do the right thing but need access to the correct information and a convenient infrastructure where the proper disposal of e-waste becomes the social norm in the community. (2) 

To tackle solutions to suppress electronic waste and decrease pollution created by electronic devices, the European Commission offers a wide range of work programmes funding several initiatives aimed at boosting sustainable development and building the future of the EU’s blueprint for growth. Within the Horizon 2020 work programme, the DigiPrime project is born from the cooperative efforts of different organisations forming the project consortium. DigiPrime aims to develop new concepts for a circular economy digital platform that overcomes current information asymmetries among value chain stakeholders to unlock new circular business models across industries. (5)

The project envisions pilot actions covering five industrial sectors: batteries, composite and techno-polymers, textile and electronics. 

Within Pilot 3 DigiPrime focuses on closed supply chains in mechatronics and electronics. The platform improves the performance of the current business case designed to remanufacture and reuse complex aftermarket mechatronic and electronic components with a cross-industry approach, especially combining the fields of electric vehicles and intelligent machine systems, focused on braking systems, electronic drives, and printed circuit boards.

In the four use cases, different activities of remanufacturing and recycling are tested using platform services from various industrial companies that provide products, production processes, and data to execute the use cases successfully. 

Read more about it: digiprime.eu 

References

1. Parliament, European. E-waste in the EU: facts and figures (infographic). European Parliament News. [Online] 03 12 2020. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20201208STO93325/e-waste-in-the-eu-facts-and-figures-infographic .

2. Rosane, Olivia. WeForum. [Online] 2021. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/10/2021-years-e-waste-outweigh-great-wall-of-china/.

3. Guy Ryder, Zhao Houlin. World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. WeForum. [Online] 2019. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/how-a-circular-approach-can-turn-e-waste-into-a-golden-opportunity/.

4. Kilvert, Nick. ABC NEWS. [Online] 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2021-10-14/e-waste-electronics-landfill-gold-landfill-recycling/100524744.

5. Veltha. Veltha DigiPrime. [Online] www.veltha.eu.

6. 2020, Eurostat. 

7. Rosane, Olivia. E-waste Great Wall Of China. ECOWATCH. [Online] 2021. https://www.ecowatch.com/e-waste-great-wall-of-china-2655291965.html#toggle-gdpr.

8. Ajwani-Ramchandani et el. Towards a circular economy for packaging waste by using new technologies: the case of large multinationals in emerging economies, 2021

9. C. Chauhan et al.; Linking circular economy and digitalisation technologies: A systematic literature review of past achievements and future promises, 2019

10. Ellen MacArthur Foundation; Towards the Circular Economy, Vol. 1, J. Ind. Ecol., 1 (2013), pp. 4-8

11. F. Garcia-Muiña, et. el., The paradigms of industry 4.0 and circular economy as enabling drivers for the competitiveness of businesses and territories: the case of an Italian ceramic tiles manufacturing company, Soc. Sci., 7, p. 255; 2018

12. .S. Mboli, et.el An Internet of Things-enabled decision support system for circular economy business model, 2020

13. Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS)https://environment.ec.europa.eu/topics/waste-and-recycling/rohs-directive_en , 2022.

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