The Circular Economy of Electronics

Circular Electronics We define the Circular Economy of electronics reuse as the result of performing all viable reuse processes (citizen and professional loops, see next figure) until the use value of devices does not allow further reuse, and that at the end of any reused device is recycled.

Therefore, there are two aspects that are key to achieving Circular Economy of electronics:

  1. Traceability: we should ensure that after multiple cycles of reuse devices end up being recycled
  2. Circular Auditability: we should ensure at the time of recycling devices have low use value, so there is no premature recycling. In this way, reuse that is traceable to ensure final recycling, and auditable to ensure there is no premature recycling, society would not waste value from the computational resources in circulation (already manufactured) and we would make more efficient use of our resources (minerals, work, pollution capacity, etc).

What is the reuse of electronics?

The reuse of electronic devices such as desktops, laptops or mobile phones is applied to devices that have already been manufactured and are no longer in use (disposal) and will be recycled unless they are not prepared for reuse (repaired, upgraded) and redistributed to other users.

We say a device or component is reusable if it has any use value for someone. If the use value of the device is high enough, it means that there is somewhere a potential user for that device as it is, and only a basic refurbishing processes is required (see citizen reuse loop in the figure), such as erasing data or restoring the operating system.

If the use value is too low, its use value can be increased through several types of actions of preparation for reuse (see professional reuse loop): repairing, replacing and updating:

  1. repair a component.
  2. replace a damaged component that can no be repaired, for example change the battery
  3. upgrade with a new or used component with higher performance (for example replacing a disk drive by SSD storage). The cycle reach recycling to recover raw materials and manufacture new components.

Why we should reuse our electronics?

The increase in the so-called e-waste, the equivalent of 4,500 Eiffel towers in 2016, can hardly be mitigated by recycling alone, a term that comes from our current linear economy and which, if applied at 100%, would only reduce our carbon footprint by 1.6%, clearly we will not reach the 50% reduction target by 2050.

The amount of obsolete electronic equipment is further driven by relatively short replacement cycles. Since technology changes quickly, many users replace devices, such as their mobile phone, regularly and often before the devices break. This and other factors generated a volume of 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste in 2016.

Only 20% (8.9 Mt) of waste is documented to be collected, and the fate of 76% (34.1 Mt) of e-waste is unknown; likely dumped, traded, or recycled under unknown conditions. Dumping into landfills leads to toxins leaking into the environment, and incineration leads to emissions in the air. These disposal scenarios exist in both developed and developing countries and are not satisfactory, because they lead to a loss of secondary resources and damage the environment.