How Circular Economy Helps To Tackle The E-Waste Crisis
“Right to repair” initiative and material revolutions could radically reshape the design of electronic products.
October 20, 2020, Shiori Ota
A growing mountain of e-waste, obsolete electronic products, is changing the production and consumption of electronics. As more and more consumers demand sustainable products, manufacturers and policymakers are urged to respond to their needs and change the current linear growth model. With the “Right to repair” movement and self-healing materials, we may soon witness products with a longer lifetime, and a rapid transition towards the circular economy.
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CIRCULAR ECONOMY TO REDUCE E-WASTE
The linear economy of “take-make-use-dispose” has reached its limits. As the global population and consumption grow, this linear model produces a lot of waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, with an increasing scarcity of natural resources such as the critical and rare minerals, the need for more efficient resource management will increase. Thus, the circular economy, which enhances the efficient recycling and re-use of all products, is gaining momentum as a mode of production.
Recycling has been advancing with technological developments such as recycling robots. But, products, particularly electronic products such as phones, tablets, and computers, which can be re-used and easily repaired, are also increasingly needed to reduce e-waste.
For example, people may replace their smartphones every few years and discard the old ones. This cycle of consumption has led e-waste to be the world’s most rapidly growing solid-waste stream. In fact, the amount of e-waste produced in the world reaches close to 50 million tons every year.
A dramatic increase in e-waste could pose severe health and environmental threats, as many of the electronic products contain harmful materials such as beryllium and mercury.
“RIGHT TO REPAIR” RULE FOR LONG-LASTING ELECTRONIC PRODUCTS
To tackle this e-waste crisis and make the shift towards circular economy happen, the European Union included the “right to repair” rule in its newly announced Circular Economy Action Plan. Indeed, according to surveys, about 70% of European citizens prefer to have long-lasting electronic devices.
The “right to repair” rule would allow consumers to open their phones and conduct simple repairs, such as replacing a screen or battery. This would increase the sales of reusable, easily repairable and recyclable electronic products that can be upgraded, instead of discarding them when they become outdated.
If the European Parliament approves the rule, it will require tech corporations to rethink the designs of their products aimed at the European markets. However, the corporations would not necessarily change the designs for the rest of the global markets without other governments establishing similar rules or economic incentives to promote sustainable products.
Nevertheless, the current single-use culture is increasingly acknowledged as an unsustainable practice among consumers. Responding to customer’s needs and implementing circular production and consumption systems will be the key to successful development in the future.
ELECTRONICS THAT HEAL THEMSELVES
Another driving force towards electronic products with a longer life is the emergence of self-healing materials such as self-healing polymer. The polymer can self-heal after breaking or getting small scratches. If this technology develops further, future smartphones or other electronic devices may repair themselves.
Similarly, self-healing metals may also yield promising results, but they are still in their initial stages. As the metals could prevent the proliferation of micro-cracks, structural failures, caused by the repeated pressures of daily use, could be better managed with the use of this metal.
These technologies are not ready for commercial production yet, and further research is needed. Still, given the rapid progression of the material technologies, the power of self-healing could contribute to the circular economy as a form of keeping products in use as long as possible.
They could also make the maintenance much more convenient as well as preserve the new feeling of products. This will, in turn, motivate consumers to use them longer.
CIRCULAR ECONOMY AS A FUTURE PROOF STRATEGY
The shift towards repairability and longer durability for our everyday electronic products holds tremendous potential to benefit consumers, society, and environment. Tech companies will likely be forced to significantly change the design of their products and provide better information on the lifespan of the products to consumers.
Consumers are increasingly aware of the importance of making environmentally sustainable choices. Businesses which respond to the ever-changing needs of consumer behaviour and catch the wave of circular business models will be well-positioned to seize market opportunities.
In the future, sustainable electronic products will become the norm to tackle e-waste crisis and accelerate the transition towards the circular economy.
HOW CIRCULAR ECONOMY WILL IMPACT ON YOUR FUTURE
To write this article, Futures Platform’s futurists have collected the data from different phenomena and studied linkages between them. Here are the three colliding phenomena that are shaping the future of production and consumption.
The circular economy is a rising production mode aiming to reduce waste and pollution by following the principles of sustainable development in the design of material flows. The efficient use and recycling of all raw materials benefit both the environment and the economy. A shift to a circular system also benefits humans by allowing us to sustain our lifestyles, creating new job opportunities, and improving our health through reduced air pollution.
A group of scientists from the University of California, Riverside, got inspired by Wolverine, a comic character from the X-Men, who has self-healing abilities. As a result, they created a transparent, self-repairing, and highly stretchable material that can be electrically activated. Therefore, it’s especially suitable for improving the performance of smartphones, robots, and other electronic devices.
Instead of focusing solely on growth, profits, and financial success, more and more organizations build their strategies and projects on values that stress the importance of striving towards a better, more sustainable world. Though many organizations have participated in these types of activities for the sake of marketing or to improve their corporate image, there is a new wave of businesses with a genuine desire to seek solutions for the most significant challenges facing humanity and the environment.
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