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E-waste is a growing problem. But if manufacturers kept ownership of their products and leased them to us, recycling could make good business sense.
Laptops, phones and tablets come out in new, flashier upgrades each year, and consumers lap them up, eager to own the latest desirable models with the most cutting-edge features. But with every upgrade, older models mount up in landfills around the world.
In 2019, we generated a record 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste, according to the Global E-waste Monitor put out by United Nations University's (UNU) — a UN research and academic institution — among other organizations. It predicts that this amount will reach 74 million tons by the end of the decade.
Apart from the sheer volume of waste piling up on trash heaps, electronics often contain toxic chemicals such as mercury and chlorofluorocarbons that can leach into the surrounding environment.
Despite growing awareness of the problem, little of this waste is being recycled.
"While consumers will often say 'Yes, of course I am in favor of recycling, and yes, I recycle,' when you actually look at behaviors, it doesn't match up with the percentages who say they would do it," said Laura Kelly, director of the Shaping Sustainable Markets group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a London-based independent research organization.
Which is why some experts are calling for a radical overhaul of electronics manufacturers' business model.
"Innovation is very much needed in order to reuse as much as possible," said Ruediger Kuehr, director of the Sustainable Cycles Program at UNU and one of the Global E-waste Monitor's authors.
Kuehr believes we need to "dematerialize" the electronics sectors – instead of buying and owning the latest tech we should lease the devices we use, with manufacturers shifting their model to providing a service instead of material goods.
With manufacturers maintaining ownership of their products, the burden of recycling would shift from consumers — who often don't know how best to dispose of old devices — to companies who would reuse materials and parts for new products.
In 2019, only 17.4% of e-waste — 9.3 million tons — was formally collected and recycled, according to the latest E-waste Monitor. This largely ends up with recycling facilities that operate independently of manufacturers. And because e-waste isn't their problem, the manufacturers themselves have little incentive to design products with easy disassembly and recovery of reusable materials in mind.
The new devices with space-age-smooth casings are often virtually impossible to take apart, meaning even the precious materials they contain will end up in landfills. And for manufacturers, the faster we discard and replace them, the bigger their profits.
Yet for certain products, leasing models are already proving to make good business sense. Japanese electronics company Canon, has a scheme to lease large office printers in Europe, which Kuehr cited as an example of dematerialization. Hewlett-Packard and Xerox offer similar initiatives.
When a lease ends, Canon takes back the used printer, refurbishes it for the next customer or, if it is no longer in working order, ships it to its facility in Giessen, Germany, where it is broken down to the chassis. Parts are then reused in repairing other machines. This allows the company to recover 80% of the materials by weight, according to Canon sustainability manager Andy Tomkins.
Tompkins said Canon wasn't only motivated by environmental concerns. Considering the size of the machines — and the volume of materials involved — it "makes economic sense to do this as well," he said. There are also relatively few of these printers out in circulation, making it easier for them to be recalled than, say, cellphones.
But Tompkins believes subscription models could work for smaller, more numerous devices, if consumers were ready for it. Unlike with office machines, many private customers still want to own a product. Moreover, they want to own one that is new.
It would also require manufacturers to redesign their product lines — in the same way that Canon's made-for-lease printers are made to be taken apart with maximum recovery of materials in mind — and build facilities to undertake this work.
Even then, there is a limit to the volume of materials that can be recycled. Blair Fix, a political economist and author of the book Rethinking Economic Growth Theory From a Biophysical Perspective, points out that everything degrades and nothing is perfectly recyclable. "We're always going to need materials," he said. And right now, it is often far cheaper to produce new materials — like plastics from oil — than recycle used ones.
Kelly at the IIED noted that, in many cases, corporations do adopt environmentally progressive policies on their own. One reason is that sustainability commitments can enhance their brand. But non-renewable resources are also declining.
The E-Waste Monitor estimates the value of the raw materials thrown out in old electronics in 2019 at $57 billion (€47 billion). Of this, only $10 billion worth of raw material was recovered "in an environmentally sound way." Some of this value is in rare elements such as gold and those — like cobalt — that are becoming ever scarcer because they are essential to electronics.
Forward-thinking companies that start rolling out circular strategies now could have a head start if the economics shifts in favor of recycling, Kelly says.
There is little sign of companies doing so yet, though, and Fix says dematerialization electronics might require government intervention. Regulations could oblige manufacturers to take on the costs of disposing of their products, while public money could subsidize some of manufacturers' costs for setting up their own disassembly and recycling plants.
"If producers would market it this way, it could really make a difference," Kuehr said.