Today marks 'International E-waste Day 2020', developed in 2018 by the WEEE Forum, an international association of electronic waste collection schemes, to raise awareness on the ever-growing pile of e-waste, and to encourage consumers to recycle their e-waste. While the amount of e-waste is growing, we see a rapid increase in Critical Raw Materials (CRM), meaning raw materials of high importance to the EU and with high supply risks, as published by the European Commission. Back in 2011, this list contained 11 CRMs, which has expanded to a total of 30 today. Multiple studies show that at least 20 CRMs such as cobalt, tungsten and magnesium can be found within electronic products, and with lithium (a key material for batteries) joining the list since this year, the contribution of the electronics sector to material scarcity is increasing. Therefore the importance of proper e-waste handling, in order to secure future demand, is growing year by year.
A record of 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2019, according to the UN Global E-waste Monitor. Shockingly enough, it is only 17,4 percent that is collected and properly recycled. The other 82,6 percent is either landfilled, incinerated or illegally traded and treated in an incorrect way. To make this concrete in economic terms, this equals 50.8 billion euros of value that is wasted. And not only the economic loss makes the case for change evident. The high volume use of CRMs in electronics, and their design for obsolescence, results in a huge loss of valuable materials, which has a significant effect on both environmental and societal issues. Take for example the extraction of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This is tainted by severe ethical and humanitarian issues, including Child Labor, Corruption and hazardous artisanal mining.
Time to act: Circularity might contribute to solving two issues at once
I will not make the argument that moving towards a circular economy, in which products and materials are constantly being re-used, repaired, refurbished or recycled, solves both issues at once. However, with an estimate that the amount of e-waste will move up to 74 million Mt by 2030, combined with a scary low percentage of e-waste recycled, and all negative related environmental and social effects, I would say it is definitely time to move towards (more) circular practices now! How to act? Companies need to take ownership of their impact and take this challenge to invest heavily in take-back schemes, collaborate with their value chain in a transparent way, and evidently also put emphasis on increased design for durability, disassembly and recyclability. By doing so, companies will be better prepared for future regulations (such as the 'Right to Repair' rules the EU has planned for by 2021) and have increased resilience for supply chain hick-ups as dependency will decrease over time. All of this would allow refurbishment and recycling facilities to flourish and encourage consumers to consider recycling options for their old electronics, moving towards a decrease of e-waste in the near future.
Next steps to take
How to practically re-design your products for easier disassembly, whilst at the same time decrease your environmental footprint and improve circularity? It all starts with clear insight in the impact of your products and assets on the environment, as what gets measured, can be managed and hence improved! For this purpose KPMG teamed-up with Circular IQ and developed a software enabled solution that supports companies to analyze, quantify and improve this through comprehensive data-driven, eco-impact circularity analysis. Results show that there is a potential for 25-33% environmental footprint reduction on average! Want to know more? Please have a look here.