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As the United Kingdom’s government embarks on a landmark campaign to mitigate e-waste, should electronics manufacturers do more to promote circular-economy practices?

Recently the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry surveyed 2,353 adults about how they approach electronics recycling. The organization found that 96 percent of consumers were keeping one or more small technology items, including laptops, mobile phones and MP3 players, stored at home. Of these people, fewer than one in five have plans to recycle the items, with two-thirds planning to hoard their electronics “indefinitely,” citing that data and security fears made them feel uneasy (37 percent) and that they did not know where to go to recycle old devices (29 percent).

Worldwide, the amount of e-waste is growing

Despite the data suggesting people are hoarding old electronic devices, the amount of e-waste across the globe is growing at an unprecedented rate. Worldwide, e-waste is expected to climb to nearly 7 kilograms (15 lbs.) of e-waste per person by 2022. Considering that many of the top-selling smartphones weigh around six ounces, that’s a significant amount of e-waste.

Government regulations, like the U.K.’s new e-waste management campaign, are starting to address safer methods of disposal, noting the harmful effects caused by improper disposal of toxic rare earth minerals found in electronics. An International Solid Waste Association study found that of the 44.7 metric tons e-waste generated in 2016, only 8.9 metric tons were collected and recycled, while the remaining was disposed into residual waste to be incinerated or landfilled.

The improper disposal of e-waste can lead to many negative environmental impacts, including the poisoning of human food chains. For example, a recent techUK study brought additional attention to how Europe's e-waste is affecting public health in Africa.

The report took at close look at the level of toxins in the Agbogbloshie district on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana’s capital. NGOs including Seattle-based Basel Action Network and publications such as the Guardian have long described Agbogbloshie as the site of the world’s largest e-waste dumping ground. Researchers at techUK found that eggs from chickens in Agbogbloshie, where large amounts of illegally exported e-waste from Europe end up, had 220 times the tolerable amount of chlorinated dioxins. Highly toxic, chlorinated dioxins are carcinogenic and can cause reproductive, hormonal and developmental problems, as well as damage to the immune system.

Are electronics manufacturers obligated to champion a circular economy?

While governments are beginning to raise awareness around e-waste issues, the question of how much responsibility electronics manufacturers should take is hard to ignore. After all, e-waste is a direct result from and a possible solution to revitalizing their supply chains. Of the finite natural elements commonly used in manufacturing electronics, 11 are at risk of running out.

Fairphone, a Dutch social enterprise, says it is committed to having a positive impact on the electronics industry by paving the way for more ethical sourcing. The company builds smartphones with responsible and sustainable materials, including recycled plastic, copper and tin as well as fair trade-certified gold. Their definition of “fair” is strongly influenced by the working conditions of the people mining the materials. Fairphone has set a goal to responsibly source 70 percent of these eight materials – tin, plastic, gold, tungsten, copper, cobalt, lithium and neodymium – by the end of 2020.

By forging new supplier and sub-supplier relationships and even shipping e-waste containers from countries like Ghana back to Europe in an effort to salvage batteries and recycle materials such as cobalt, Fairphone is showing the electronics industry what can be accomplished in an effort to spur industry-wide change.

One electronics company doing its part to promote a circular economy is HP. Since 2016, HP has been drawing attention to the impact of e-waste. HP says it is helping electronics hoarders let go of their unwanted devices by publicly offering recycling services, trade-in incentives, return for cash or donation options as well as to safely destroy data drives and other electronics at the end of their life cycle.

HP says it has used over half a million pounds of ocean-bound plastic in their products, and more than 80 percent of HP ink cartridges and 100 percent of HP LaserJet toner cartridges are manufactured with recycled content.

The company also supports events designed to inspire new ideas to push the circular economy forward. Recently, HP hosted a Massachusetts Institute of Technology event focused on moving away from the traditional approach of making electronics as take, make and dispose. Innovators were brought together to brainstorm solutions that could enable a shift in supply chains from linear to circular, helping to reduce waste and improve lives along the way. Organizers of the event say new solutions will be presented later this year.

Additionally, some colleges and universities across the United States already are teaching students how to repair electronics that would otherwise become e-waste.

With companies like Fairphone and HP working to create a circular economy for electronics, should other manufacturers like Samsung, LG Electronics and Apple do more? Marketing tactics like planned obsolescence—the practice of deliberately designing devices not to last—is regularly called out by activists for the harm it causes to people and the environment. One study brought to light that purchasing a new phone uses roughly the same amount of energy as using an older phone for 10 years. 

While many electronics manufacturers incentivize e-waste recycling with trade-in offers, these current programs clearly are not robust enough to revolutionize the supply chain and prevent people from hoarding their devices.

And, for those in the U.S. who may not know where to properly dispose of electronics, Best Buy and Staples stores offer free electronics recycling.

Image credit: Andrea Huyoff/Pixabay

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Can Electronics Manufacturers Make E-Waste Go Away?
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Many people are hoarding electronic devices while e-waste accumulates worldwide. Could electronics manufacturers do more to make this sector more circular?
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