The impact of electronic devices on the circular economy
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The impact of electronic devices on the circular economy

The impact of electronic devices on the circular economy

With sustainability at the forefront of everyone’s mind, here’s how trading in old devices can contribute to a circular economy

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Electronics have become intrinsically linked to every aspect of our daily lives. Our dependency on our devices has contributed to a global consumer electronics market worth an estimated $1 trillion, with that figure rapidly increasing. As a result, electronic waste is also seeing rapid growth. Raw materials – primarily iron, copper, and gold – valued at approximately $57bn, are lost in e-waste globally, leading to pollution and health hazards on both a local, and a global scale.

These shocking statistics are a result of the linear take-make-waste economic model that most of society currently operates in. We take materials from the earth, make products out of those materials, then eventually discard products as waste as they approach the end of their lifecycle.

In recent years however, we are seeing a dramatic shift in mindset into an era of environmental consciousness. This shift includes a collective realisation of the importance of a circular economy and its various benefits. The circular system is based on three principles: the elimination of waste and pollution, the circulation of products and materials – at their highest value, and the regeneration of nature. It works to decouple economic activity from the consumption of finite resources through utilising renewable alternatives. A circular economy, as its name suggests, is cyclic in nature rather than linear, focusing on reuse, as opposed to waste, at the end of a product’s lifecycle.

Applying the basic principles of a circular economy to the electronics industry requires us to start considering waste as a design flaw rather than an inevitable by-product. It requires manufacturers to design products with resource efficiency and extended lifespans in mind.

The tech, and particularly smartphone, industries are some of the fastest-evolving in the industries in the world. Frequent breakages, coupled with continual release of new products, make device replacement rate extremely high. An unfortunate consequence is discarding products before they reach the end of their lifestyle, contributing majorly to the 53.6 million metric tonnes of toxic e-waste that was generated worldwide in 2019. E-waste is currently the world’s fastest growing waste stream and projected to increase by approximately 30 per cent by 2030. Currently, less than 1 per cent of phones are being recycled leading to the unnecessary depletion of valuable resources in order to replace wasted products.

Every stage of an electronic device’s lifecycle, from birth to earth, has a detrimental impact on the environment. The process begins with mining, then material production, manufacturing, shipping, then operation, and ends with the eventual disposal. The consequences of such activities range from harmful byproducts being released into the earth and atmosphere, to incredibly high carbon footprints and energy consumption levels. The solution to such issues lies in finding ways to reduce the demand for the continual production and manufacturing of new devices.

Given the deep social and environmental cost of producing and using smartphones, the most logical solution is to extend their lifespan for as long as possible. By keeping electronics in use for as long as possible, transferring from first to subsequent users, until finally the device is refurbished, reused or remanufactured, we can reduce e-waste significantly and support a more circular economic model. Currently, only 1-2 per cent of devices are traded in the UAE, compared to around 25 per cent in the USA. In fact, the average household in Dubai possesses three to five devices stowed away in drawers, unused. Options to reuse or recycle devices in an affordable manner are either simply not available, or attractive, to consumers in the UAE.

Not just globally, but even in the UAE, the nation has made a collective decision to enhance sustainability and shift the economy towards adopting greener practices. Last year, the UAE cabinet approved the UAE Circular Economy Policy – a comprehensive framework to ensure quality of life for current and future generations. This framework includes supporting the private sector in adopting clean methods that support green development.

A true circular economy requires more than simply ensuring your old device does not end up in landfill. It’s about provoking a mindset shift and opting for remanufactured electronics going forward. Fortunately, this mindset shift is underway. Secondhand goods are increasingly associated with improving product lifecycle and enhancing sustainability, making shopping in the secondhand market an attractive prospect for ‘purpose-driven’ consumers who value sustainability.

Pishu Ganglani is the co-founder at NorthLadder

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