Frost & Sullivan’s Sustainability team highlights the potential offered by circularity on International E-waste Day
An alarming rise in E-waste volumes due to the explosive growth in consumption of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is forcing manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to explore new business models. This has brought circular electronics under the spotlight wherein manufacturers focus on developing and promoting the use of recycled and refurbished electrical and electronic products. Governments also play an instrumental role in effectively and efficiently managing E-waste by way of framing policies such as extended producer responsibility (EPR). Traditional methods of handling (manual), sorting, burning, and incineration of E-waste need to be replaced with advanced technologies such as automation, robotics, and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
Of the 53.5 MMt of E-waste generated in 2020, 78.0% remains uncollected and undocumented, raising concerns on human and environmental safety. In addition to factors such as improved standard of living, rise in disposable income, urbanization and industrialization, development and access to low-cost products, coupled with shorter product lifecycles, are factors contributing to mounting E-waste volumes. As we move towards a new era of digitalization and IIoT with increased dependency on electronic devices and connectivity, stakeholders across the value chain should focus mainly on reusing and recovering resources as well as ensure environmental safety.
The global WEEE recycling market was estimated at $3,854.5 million in 2020 witnessing a year-on-year growth of 3.7%. A rise in environmental awareness and commitment from leading technology giants and electronic manufacturers towards adopting sustainable production and supply chain practices supported the growth of recyclers in the year. This trend is expected to continue over the next 5 years as enterprises across various EEE product segments include circular electronics as part of their vision and future strategy.
The top 5 trends we are witnessing in 2021 related to environment and sustainability will both shape and transform growth and innovation prospects for the cross section of stakeholders.
- Growth of IT Asset Disposal (ITAD) Services
Investments in IT infrastructure management have increased multi-fold for over a decade now. These IT assets raise a concern as they reach their end of life and require efficient recycling and recovery methods. Erasing all data with software programs such as data erasure qualifies the IT asset to be reused by the same enterprise for its business operations or secondary use. Alternatively, these assets can be refurbished and sold as second-hand hardware in the market. This approach offers the twin benefit of (i) remaining compliant with data regulations with no trace of old data and (ii) implementing circular IT where assets are reused, recycled, and refurbished. As more enterprises move from on-premise to cloud-based data centers, ITAD programs become essential for the management of hyper-scale data centers set up by leading technology giants across the globe.
- Incorporating Digital Passport to Products & Materials
An efficient ‘track & trace’ feature from the time of product manufacture to its consumption and disposal will offer better visibility and/or complement the efforts of manufacturers, recyclers, and governments in tackling E-waste. Digital passport provides sets of data with characteristics of materials and components of electronic products and systems as well as recycling procedures enabling efficient use, as well as recovery, recycling and reuse at the end-of-life. Digital passport, such as digital twin (a virtual representation of the real-time product or process) is set to strongly contribute to the circular economy of EEE in the years ahead.
- Building Sustainable Supply Chains
Leading EEE enterprises are offering buybacks, charging advanced recycling fees (paid by the consumer upfront during product purchase) and selling refurbished products as part of their business strategies to improve product lifecycle and gain a stronger foothold in the market. At the current volume of E-waste generated, there is potential to recover more than $57 billion worth of raw materials with effective and efficient collection, recycling, and recovery solutions. Urban mining has become the key enabler to preserve valuable metals and promote a circular economy. Recycling of electric and electronic products is becoming an indispensable factor due to the presence of precious and scarce rare earth metals such as silver, gold, platinum, neodymium, indium, ruthenium, rhodium, iridium and osmium, and other valuable materials such as cobalt and palladium. EEE producers foresee the likelihood of having a limited supply of rare metals in the medium to long term and so will require efficient recycling and recovery methods.
- Electronics-as-a-Service to Promote Zero Waste and Discover New Avenues for Revenue
Expanding service offerings of electronic enterprises offers the twin benefits of addressing pressing environmental needs and unleashing new revenue opportunities by bridging the market gap in the repair, collection, and recycling of electronic products. SDG 12 is focused on responsible production and consumption with a strong emphasis on EEE. Enterprises are obliged to adopt best practices across their value chain that protect and promote the safety of humans and the environment. This includes the shift towards – (i) increased lifespan of electronic products, (ii) closed-loop production, (iii) buy-back and exchange policy, (iv) urban mining, and (v) reverse supply chain.
- Design for Sustainability
Design has become the key in the transformation towards a more sustainable future of EEE and to properly address the negative impact of E-waste. Design for sustainability comprises of re-designing of products and incorporating smart end-of-life solutions as well as focuses on rising awareness of manufacturers and consumers and shift behaviours from linear to circular. This approach requires greater focus on circular design, in-build sustainability and therefore greater attention to limit E-waste generation. Designers and manufacturers are focusing on creating long-life materials and products that are highly regenerative, restorative, and zero-waste.