When talking about zero-waste electronics, it’s easy to get stuck on how America deals with e-waste, but for truly sustainable electronics, the journey starts long before the end of a product’s life. To discover whether zero-waste electronics are a possibility, we have to look at what zero waste really means and how this relates to the entire lifecycle of consumer electronics today – from mines to stores to bedroom drawers.
According to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), zero waste is:
“The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
Thus, we must look at the production and consumption of consumer electronics in America as well as their disposal (e-waste) in order to understand whether there can ever be zero-waste electronics. So, let’s start at the beginning, with how consumer electronics are made today.
Production – How to Build Sustainable Electronics
The production of electronics is not like the production of other goods – devices are often incredibly complex, with production lines that include numerous companies across a multitude of countries. The average smartphone, for example, often contains hundreds of individual components needing an array of raw materials, including gold, cobalt, lithium, silver, copper, silicon, tin, iron, boron… the list goes on. In fact, the average mobile handset includes 62 types of metal and a Yale University study back in 2013 found that 12 of those can’t really be replaced by anything else.
Therefore, if we continue to produce electronics as we do now, they are likely to continue to need the same resources that they use today. Unfortunately, whether it’s the lithium in a battery, the iron in a speaker, or the sand in a silicon chip, these resources are almost always mined, which almost always has negative environmental and social repercussions. This comes in the form of one-off disasters, like the collapse of an iron mine’s tailing dam in 2019 that killed at least 259 people, as well as longer-term concerns, like groundwater contamination from lithium extraction.
That is to say, the extraction of the raw materials necessary for the production of electronics is completely at odds with the zero-waste principles laid out above. What’s more, these raw materials are just a small part of what goes into a final electronic product. There is also the processing and manufacturing of the components, packaging, transport, and production facilities to consider, among a number of other things.
That said, there have been some attempts to create more sustainable consumer electronics. One of the most notable sustainable electronics brands is Fairphone, currently only available in Europe. They attempt to use more sustainable materials and manufacturing methods, including recycled plastics and metals, fair-trade gold, conflict-free minerals, and production lines with fairer labor conditions. They also look at the whole lifecycle of devices, with e-waste takeback programs to recycle and reuse devices.
What’s more, they give the phone a five-year warranty along with a modular and reparable design. This is arguably one of the biggest differences they have compared to other electronics producers, which takes us on to our next point: consumption.
Consumption – Where We Fit into Zero-Waste Electronics
We consume electronics at an astonishing rate, with 97% of Americans now owning a phone of some kind, 77% owning a desktop or laptop computer, and 51% some kind of tablet device, according to the Pew Research Center. Additionally, with the rapid development of consumer electronics in the past few decades, the amount of time that people use these devices is minimal, with many Americans upgrading their phones every two years. This high consumption rate means devices, and thus resources, are falling out of the economy long before their actual end-of-life, in contradiction to zero-waste principles.
That said, there has been a trend for longer device ownership, with the average amount of time American smartphone owners used their phones growing from 22.7 months in 2016 to 24.7 months in 2018. However, this is still a very short period of time.
One aspect that has come under particular scrutiny in recent years is the idea of planned obsolescence – deliberately designing a product that will be useless in a specific (normally short) period of time. Some smartphone manufacturers have been accused of building this into their products, which if true, would be yet another barrier to zero-waste electronics.
Whether from consumer demand, producer design, or most likely, a mix of the two, the short lifecycle of consumer electronics today would need to be radically changed in order to even come close to zero-waste electronics.
Disposal – E-waste, Reuse, and Recycling
As discussed, consumer electronics are flowing into our homes and businesses in greater numbers and at cheaper prices than ever before. Unfortunately, e-waste management is failing to keep pace, which has led to a massive problem in the sustainable disposal of old electronics.
If e-waste is sent to landfills or incinerators, it can have a devastating impact on people and the planet, releasing toxic chemicals which can damage ecosystems and people’s health. What’s more, this disposal of e-waste means valuable raw materials aren’t recovered, resulting in the need for more virgin resources to be mined for the manufacture of new electronics.
On the flip side, the responsible recycling of e-waste to extract raw materials, such as gold, silver, copper, etc., can help reduce the number of virgin resources that need to be extracted, saving natural resources, conserving energy, and reducing pollution. This keeps goods in the economy and out of the landfill, which would take us significantly closer to zero-waste consumer electronics. However, right now, e-waste simply isn’t being recycled as much as it needs to be. It’s hard to know what percentage of electronics are recycled, but estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 put the figure at just 25% — highly optimistic when looking at other recycling rates in the United States.
Moreover, there are serious concerns about e-waste recycling in developing countries, where Western electronics are often shipped for processing. At these informal recycling facilities, one of the most common methods for extracting valuable resources from electronics is open-air burning. This releases dangerous pollutants including lead, mercury, and arsenic that damage people’s health and leach into the environment.
Reuse is, as with any sustainable waste management, a much better option than recycling. For consumer electronics, this means the refurbishment of old devices for either sale or donation until they reach an actual disposal state, at which point they can be recycled.
The reuse of electronics is where modular and reparable design, which we mentioned earlier, comes into play. Often, it will be one component in a consumer electronic device that breaks, but the replacement of that component is either prohibitively expensive, not available, or liable to breach your warranty. This means that devices degrade or are discarded despite being nearly entirely reusable, save one element. Making electronics modular, reparable, and upgradable will keep them in use for far longer, and much closer to the zero-waste electronics ideal.
While consumers may be upgrading their devices at a rapid pace, this doesn’t necessarily mean old electronics are ending up in landfills or incinerators. Unfortunately, they aren’t being reused or recycled either. They are, in fact, sitting in draws and cupboards around the world. Leaving electronics in a drawer is surely better than them going to landfill or incinerators, but it still removes those resources from the supply chain. If zero-waste electronics are ever going to be possible, there needs to be a consumer shift about how we deal with (or fail to deal with) our old electronics.
Is It Possible to Have Zero-Waste Electronics?
From a production standpoint, sustainable electronics manufacturing is still a long way away. The mining alone is at odds with zero-waste principles, not to mention the waste produced from processing, packaging, transport and production facilities. There are some companies trying to change this, but they are few and far between.
Looking at disposal, e-waste is a major issue that has grown in recent years. The recycling of e-waste can help to reduce the impacts of production, but right now it comes at a cost to human and environmental health. The reuse of electronics is by far the best option, but we still find too many devices sitting in drawers or cupboards, far from staying in the cycle.
Consumption is arguably one of the biggest hurdles to zero-waste electronics, but also one that we can change. Individuals and businesses must reduce their demand for “newer” “better”, and “cheaper” electronics and instead look at extending the life of the devices they have.
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