The acceleration of innovation and the drastic reduction of costs have greatly increased the use of electronic products and digital technology, which has brought convenience to people’s work and life, but it also triggered the unexpected consequences of the surge in e-waste.
Although it is difficult to predict the annual production of electronic products, the number of connected devices alone has far exceeded the world population. With the sharp decline in the cost of electronic products and the increasing demand from people, it is expected that by 2020, the number of connected devices will reach 25 billion to 50 billion units.
At present, e-waste has become the fastest growing waste in the world, and some forms of e-waste have even grown exponentially, which the United Nations calls an “e-waste tsunami”. It is estimated that the global e-waste generated in 2018 weighs 48.5 million tons. Assuming other conditions remain the same, this number is expected to increase by about 2 times in the next few years. Globally, society only properly handles 20% of e-waste, and the remaining 80% of the cases have few clear data records, most of which will eventually be landfilled or treated by non-professionals with poor conditions.
However, the annual global generation of e-waste contains at least $62.5 billion in value, comparable to Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP), and even higher than the GDP of 123 countries around the world. If used properly, e-waste value may be higher.
Technological changes such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things may make the electronics industry “dematerialized”, the rise of service business models and the improvement of product tracking and recycling services will help promote the establishment of a global cyclical value chain. Improving material efficiency, building recycling infrastructure, and increasing the quantity and quality of recycled materials are critical to meeting the supply chain needs of electronics. If the corresponding policies and management measures are introduced, the e-waste recycling industry is expected to create millions of individual jobs around the world. People need to develop a new vision for the production and consumption of electrical or electronic products. E-waste is easily defined as a post-consumer issue, but actually involves the entire life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment. Designers, manufacturers, investors, traders, miners, raw material producers, recyclers, consumers, policy makers and all parties are reducing waste, maintaining system value, extending product economics and physical life, and improving maintenance. , recycling and reuse capabilities play an important role, which contains unlimited possibilities.
This historical turning point will bring unprecedented opportunities to policy makers, businesses and workers around the world. Those who can rethink the value chain of electronics and prioritize dematerialization and closed-loop systems will be in a strong position to reduce their reliance on primary resources. Based on this, innovative products and services do not necessarily result in more e-waste, but may also mean less e-waste. The widespread adoption of the “acquisition, manufacturing and disposal” model has a negative impact on society, health and climate change. Now is the best time to reshape the system. People need to build a functioning system that replaces the circular economy with a circular economy. . In the short term, e-waste is still a valuable resource that is largely unutilized, can be recycled, and is growing in number. Extracting resources from e-waste is more economically viable and consumes less energy than extracting underground metal ore. E-waste may be toxic, non-biodegradable, and accumulate in the environment, soil, air, water and organisms for a long time, which may adversely affect people’s health. Women’s and children’s health is particularly vulnerable to the mismanagement of e-waste. To ensure industry, consumer, laborer, human health and environmental benefits, there is an urgent need to rethink e-waste issues, re-evaluate the electronics industry, and reshape electronic systems. The incredible opportunities created by e-waste are also consistent with the global “reasonable transition” to environmental sustainability and the shaping of a circular economy that benefits everyone.
The status quo and trend of e-waste development
Generally, e-waste refers to any product or component with a plug, wire or battery that has reached a scrapped state, including appliances such as toasters, electric toothbrushes, smart phones, refrigerators, notebook computers, and LED televisions. Equipment comes from many channels such as family, business and government. Electronic waste is also known as waste electrical and electronic equipment (referred to as “WEEE”). At present, only a few countries have developed a unified e-waste measurement method. E-waste may contain precious metals such as gold, copper, and nickel, as well as rare materials of strategic value such as indium and palladium, many of which can be recycled and recycled, and reused as raw materials for new products. Metal recycling is complicated by the fact that an electronic product may consist of more than 1,000 different substances. E-waste may account for only 20% of all solid waste, but it accounts for 70% of the total amount of landfill hazardous waste. In complex electronic products such as smartphones, more than 60 elements of the periodic table can be found, many of which can be technically recycled.
According to the 2017 Global E-waste Monitoring Report, a total of 44.7 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2016, equivalent to more than 6 kg of e-waste generated by everyone on the planet, of which only the weight of e-waste generated in Europe and the United States is It has reached nearly half of the total annual global production. Currently, about 36 million tons of e-waste generated each year around the world are landfilled, burned or illegally traded and disposed of in a substandard manner.
Half of all e-waste comes from personal devices such as computers, displays, smartphones, tablets and televisions; the other half comes from large household appliances and heating and cooling equipment. The weight of global e-waste has surpassed the sum of all commercial aircraft manufactured around the world. Imagine the weight of 125,000 large jets. It takes up to six months for London Heathrow to get these planes off the runway. . If you find it hard to imagine, imagine the weight of the 4,500 Eiffel Towers. If you put these towers side by side in a space, the area is equivalent to a Manhattan size.
Although it is difficult to predict how much e-waste will be produced in the future, by 2021, the total amount of e-waste generated each year will exceed 52 million tons. In addition, other indications indicate that the use of electrical and electronic equipment will increase. It is estimated that by 2020, the number of connected devices worldwide will reach 25 billion to 50 billion units, almost three times the current population of the Earth. There is a day of retirement. The growth of connected devices is mainly from emerging markets, as these regions are increasingly integrated with the global interconnected economy.
By 2040, the carbon emissions from the production and use of electronic products, including personal computers, laptops, displays, smartphones and tablets, will reach 14% of global carbon emissions, equivalent to today’s global Half of the total emissions of the transportation industry. According to the UNU in Vienna, it is expected that by the worst case, by 2050, the world’s annual e-waste will reach 120 million tons. According to the OECD, by 2060, the world’s raw material consumption will double.
At present, in addition to the new electronic appliances and electronic equipment will be generated when the e-waste will be generated, the stored electrical appliances and electronic equipment will also generate e-waste when it is scrapped. Consider the millions of old TVs and computer monitors, cathode ray tubes and video recorders. And DVD players contain toxic compounds such as lead, making e-waste more dangerous and problematic. In addition, a series of e-waste generated by the old technology also needs to be solved.
Resource shortage, extraction and emissions
People are worried about the future source and supply capacity of new materials for electrical and electronic equipment, and the rise in commodity prices highlights the risks. However, e-waste contains many high-value, scarce materials such as gold, platinum, cobalt, rare earth and a large amount of aluminum and tin. To this end, e-waste recycling has many opportunities. Although few people will throw away gold, silver or platinum jewelry directly, people do not treat electronic and electrical products containing the same precious metals. Currently, up to 7% of the world’s gold may be found in e-waste. Improper handling of e-waste has led to a significant loss of scarce high-value raw materials, including defects that are critical to motor magnets, indium used in flat-panel TVs, and precious metals such as cobalt used in batteries. Rare earth minerals are rarely extracted through informal recycling channels, which pollutes minerals.
However, metal extraction in e-waste is not an easy task. For example, laptops, smartphones, and electric vehicle batteries have a huge demand for cobalt. The prior art can achieve a cobalt recovery rate of 95%, but the current total cobalt recovery is only 30%.
The energy efficiency of recycled metals is 2 to 10 times that of raw ore smelting metals. The carbon dioxide emissions from extracting metals from electronic waste can be reduced by 80% compared to underground mining. According to statistics, in 2015, raw materials extracted accounted for 7% of the total global energy consumption, which means that the shift to more secondary materials in electronic products will be very helpful to the climate change objectives of the Paris Agreement. achieve.
Like other components of modern electronics, batteries are everywhere. From hearing aids and toys to electric cars and smartphones, batteries are used in almost all portable and mobile devices. Batteries typically contain one or more of lithium, cobalt, cadmium, lead, zinc, manganese, nickel, silver, and mercury. However, batteries are not included in the global e-waste category.
Lithium-ion batteries have become the fastest-growing market segment due to increasing demand for smartphones and electric vehicles and declining battery costs. The demand for materials such as lithium and cobalt will increase dramatically to 11 times, and is expected to reach 2025. It will reach $100 billion and the annual weight of lithium-ion batteries sold will increase five-fold to nearly 5 million tons. By 2030, the world will have a green transportation revolution: the number of electric vehicles on the road will reach 125 million, much higher than the 3 million in 2018, when the amount of used lithium-ion batteries will exceed 11 million tons. However, the global recycling rate of the lithium-ion battery market is currently only 42%. The growing volume of used lithium-ion batteries not only poses major challenges, but also presents many opportunities. Like other parts of electronics, battery recycling is critical to the growing number of used batteries. When the battery is scrapped, it must be ensured that these batteries are sent to the top recycling companies with key raw material recycling technologies; at the same time, the battery replacement service needs to be linked to the recycling of used batteries to ensure that the used batteries are properly disposed of.
Cobalt is one of the most important production materials for batteries, and two-thirds of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. About 90% of the country’s cobalt is produced from large-scale, mechanized mining operations, but the remaining 10% comes from small-scale mining operations, and working conditions are extremely dangerous. According to Amnesty International, the use of child labor is very common in the informal mining industry. At present, all walks of life around the world are actively responding to these challenges, and these challenges are far more than just focusing on the life cycle and value chain of battery technology. It is worth noting that the Global Battery Alliance, as a public-private partnership platform, is seeking to provide a platform for cooperation to build a sustainable value chain for the battery industry. In addition, the continuous popularization of photovoltaic solar panels, the resulting e-waste also brings similar environmental challenges, but also provides an unprecedented opportunity to create value and cultivate a new scrap industry.
Systemic deficiency of electronic products
Consumer demand for electronic products continues to increase. Just like fast fashion and fast food, electronics is also a fast-changing fashion trend, and its revenue depends on the latest products that are selling more and more affordable. Affordable prices have created many opportunities for developing countries in particular, especially mobile money has greatly enhanced financial inclusion and brought other development opportunities. In many cases, the used equipment market in these countries is very popular, giving products such as laptops and smartphones a second or third chance. However, all of these smartphones, tablets, cameras and home appliances or home appliances will eventually become waste.
According to reports, the global consumer electronics market in 2017 was approximately $1.1 trillion, and by 2024 this figure will increase to $1.7 trillion, an average annual increase of 6%. The rising use of smartphones is spurring an increase in global demand. Another major trend is the increasing use of flat-panel TV screens in developed markets and the adoption of 3G and 4G networks in developing economies. The number of electric vehicles is also growing rapidly. . In addition, more clothes, furniture, toys, sports equipment and toothbrushes are beginning to contain complex electronic components.
The recycling of electronic products is still insufficient. Globally, the recycling rate of e-waste is still very low. Even in the EU, which is the world leader in recycling, according to official data, only 35% of e-waste is properly collected and recycled. At present, the global average recycling rate of e-waste is only 20%, and the remaining 80% is even undocumented. It will eventually be buried underground for centuries, and e-waste is not biodegradable. The lack of recycling has placed a heavy burden on the global electronics industry, and as electronic devices become more and more small, more complex, and more complex, the problem will continue to escalate.
At present, the recycling process of certain types of electronic waste and materials and metals is expensive. E-waste is mainly plastics doped with metals and chemicals, making the problem even more difficult. E-waste is very complex and contains up to 60 elements of the periodic table. In some cases, e-waste also contains hazardous chemicals such as flame retardants, some of which are listed as persistent organic pollutants by the Stockholm Convention.
Due to the complexity of the system, there are some confusions about the way consumers around the world deal with e-waste. In many cases, e-waste is considered ordinary household waste, but in fact, e-waste must be disposed of separately from household waste, and different types of e-waste, including batteries, light bulbs, smart phones, cables, or computers, must also be separated. deal with. Lack of recycling awareness and concerns about data security have led to a large amount of waste electronic products to be processed in drawers, garages, bedrooms and offices around the world. Workers, health and the environment are increasingly threatened. From cathode ray tubes in old-fashioned televisions to circuit boards, mercury, cadmium, and lead in e-waste can cause harm to human health if not handled properly; in addition, e-waste can pollute water sources and food supply chains. This is especially true for e-waste generated by older products, as regulations and some voluntary principles have led to a gradual reduction in serious violations of new product manufacturing processes.
In many countries, women and children account for as much as 30% of the labor force in the informal e-waste processing industry and are therefore particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of e-waste. When prospective mothers come into contact with toxic compounds, they also face some potential risks. Many studies have shown that the increase in spontaneous abortion, stillbirth and premature birth, and the reduction in birth weight and height of infants are all related to exposure to e-waste. For this reason, expectant mother practitioners are suffering from high birth defects and infant mortality. E-waste compounds are also carcinogenic, and toxic elements have been found in the blood of informal workers in electronic landfills. As e-waste incinerators have become economic centers, food suppliers have come to the forefront and are often close to informal settlements, leading to further pollution of toxic gases. In addition, e-waste can also pollute groundwater, soil and air.
At present, the number of informal workers in the global e-waste industry is still unclear. However, ILO research data shows that the number of employees in the informal e-waste industry in Nigeria is 100,000, while the number of employees in China is expected to reach 690,000. Therefore, realizing the upgrading and formalization of the industry and allowing formal recycling factories to provide safe and decent jobs for thousands of workers is also a major opportunity for people.
The impact of electronic products on climate change is also worthy of reflection. Every device produces a carbon footprint, which artificially causes global warming to increase. For example, a ton of laptops can emit 10 tons of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide released during the service life of the equipment is mainly concentrated in the production process, so that the low-carbon process and input in the manufacturing stage (such as the use of recycled raw materials) and the extension of product life are the key determinants of the overall environment.
E-waste legislation is still missing. Currently, 67 countries around the world have enacted legislation on e-waste treatment methods, covering approximately two-thirds of the world’s population. These legislations mainly adopt a system of extension of producer responsibility, that is, a small fee for new electronic equipment to subsidize the collection and recycling of end-of-life products. However, many countries still do not have national legislation on e-waste. In many parts of Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, e-waste disposal is not a priority on its political agenda and often cannot be implemented.
Exports of e-waste to developing countries are beginning to be regulated by the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which is currently recognized by 188 countries and has other similar conventions at the regional level. Even with the constraints of the Convention, a large amount of electronic waste is illegally transported. The differences in the actual implementation of the Convention and the global differences in e-waste legislation have led to an overly complex and fragmented regulatory environment. Most of the world’s e-waste comes from Australia, China, the European Union, Japan, North America and South Korea. In the United States and Canada, each person produces approximately 20 kilograms of e-waste per year; the EU figure is 17.7 kg; and the 1.2 billion inhabitants of the African continent produce only 1.9 kg of e-waste per year. E-waste contains enormous economic value, especially for the recovery of materials such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium. For example, the gold content in a ton of smartphones is 100 times higher than that in the same weight gold mine. The richest resources on earth are buried in landfills or stored at home, and people need to make more use of them.
In 2017, 1.46 billion smartphones were sold worldwide. If the value of electronic components in each mobile phone exceeds $100.49 by retail, this means that a large amount of value enters the market every year, assuming that only raw materials are recycled. It could be as high as $11.5 billion. The latest forecast data show that the annual output of e-waste is 62.5 billion US dollars, more than the gross domestic product of most countries, which is three times the value of all silver mines in the world.
The more efficient use of the product is secondary use, which allows the material to maintain a higher value. At present, the global second-hand market for smart phones is developing well, especially in the high-end market. Of course, there is still much room for improvement in this market. For example, in 2016 alone, despite the value of billions of dollars worth of materials, there are still 435,000 tons of mobile phones discarded. In order to seize this opportunity, there is an urgent need for electronic products to move toward a circular economy.
Achieving a circular economy with zero e-waste
System upgrade: a shift to a circular economy. In a circular economy system, all materials and components maintain their highest value at all times, and waste can be redesigned. The circular economy can easily be seen as the opposite of today’s linear economy. Business models such as product-as-a-service, asset-sharing, service life extension, and recycling can all realize the circular economy of electronic products. In order to establish an electronic product recycling economy, the following factors must be considered.
When designing a product, consider the reusability, durability, and safety at the time of final recycling. Many companies have made a full commitment to not waste in the electronics value chain, while others are working hard to design products that do not contain hazardous materials. Such experience must be shared across the industry to create an open competitive space for collaboration. Durable design helps ensure that electronics can be recycled for longer. Product configuration should take into account product scrapping issues and encourage disassembly and reuse. Adopting a “system approach” and redesigning the electronic device lifecycle for a circular economy can also create more value for the electronic product recycling economy system.
More and more electronics manufacturers are able to offer repurchase or return systems for older equipment, providing consumers with financial incentives and ensuring that their data is properly handled. At the same time, manufacturers can leverage the expertise of the user experience to make the scrapping process smoother. Businesses and governments can work to create a closed-loop production system in which all waste products are collected and their materials or components can be reintegrated into new products, which requires economic incentives, policy leverage, and private The joint role of departmental leaders.
In addition, the recycling industry needs to be upgraded; in some cases, the quality of recycled materials is not sufficient for new electronic products. To this end, a number of countries have set relevant targets. For example, China has set a target of 20% of recycled materials in all new products by 2025. Recycling after the consumption of electrical and electronic products alone is far from solving this problem, and society must be able to benefit from well-designed and long-lasting products. After the equipment is maintained, repaired and refurbished, its service life will be further extended. Companies should be prepared to repair the equipment they sell, which is also a legal requirement for some jurisdictions. Second-hand electronics are more valuable than individual components, and individual components are more valuable than materials, which means that secondary use and component collection of electronic products is an important opportunity.
Some technologies can help companies extract metals and minerals from e-waste, and it is now a critical moment for companies to invest heavily in such technologies on a global scale. In China, one recycler has recovered more cobalt in one year than the country’s total cobalt mine. The recycling economy of electronic products will maximize the amount of high-value e-waste recycling and re-integrate it into new electronics and component production. To this end, more countries, especially developing countries, need to introduce e-waste legislation to increase producer responsibility and build a formal recycling industry, which will not only alleviate some of the negative effects of e-waste, but also achieve economic growth and provide Decent jobs create great opportunities. When the product cannot continue to be used, it needs to collect its materials and re-integrate them in production, the so-called reverse supply chain. However, unlike the forward supply chain, the collection and processing of materials in the reverse supply chain is not subsidized by the value of the finished product. Instead, they rely on the value of raw materials, so they need an efficient, economic, safe, and responsible reverse supply chain model and ensure that materials do not flow into the informal e-waste recycling industry.
Electronic products as a service. Previously, there were vinyl records, and then tapes and CDs. Today, electronic devices are already equipped with streaming applications based on subscriptions. With the advent of Netflix 2, video recorders, DVDs and Blu-ray discs disappeared. Some people choose to use the taxi app instead of buying a car, or live in someone else’s free room through Airbnb, so you don’t need too many hotels even during peak hours. In the past, these services were now sold only in kind. Current leasing and leasing models, such as monthly subscription contracts for smartphones and even some TVs, enable global consumers to enjoy the latest technology, especially for products with short life and low upfront costs. As consumers gain access to innovation and upgrades, their barriers to use are also reduced. With this new ownership model, manufacturers have the incentive to ensure that all resources are maximized during the life of the equipment, including deciding when to continue or recycle by another consumer. However, the key point is that until the last minute of product use, it should be considered a service, otherwise they may be sold and fall into the informal recycling industry. In addition, it helps to maintain product value, extend equipment life, repair when necessary, reduce waste, and mitigate the environmental impact of electronic products.
Compared to one-time transactions, today’s business model is more focused on continuous service and subscription economy, helping to build a tighter and stronger customer relationship network. In some countries, home modems have begun to adopt this model. For example, the Dutch mobile phone company Fairphone has launched “Fairphone as a service”, and the United States Dell has also launched “PC as a service.” Achieve economic benefits and create employment opportunities. The adoption of a circular economy model in the electronics industry can bring huge economic benefits. By 2030, the electronic product recycling model will reduce the cost for consumers by 7%, and by 2040 will reduce the cost by 14%. As e-waste becomes a growing resource, and given the scarcity of resources and the price volatility of some metals and minerals, there are more and more economic reasons for recycling these precious resources. A better design combined with resource recovery technology will generate more profitable material benefits and form positive feedback.
If the development method is reasonable, it can realize the circular economy of electronic products and e-waste industry, and even bring millions of jobs to the world. As the recycling system recycles electronic waste, there may be some low-income, low-skill jobs. But over time, this situation will change due to the emergence of a large number of employment opportunities. For example, the system will require new designers, recycling economists, urban recycling experts, and electronics-as-a-service staff. In summary, the future of the electronics industry is very bright.