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Global Agencies Propose New Circular Electronics Economy

electronics
(Photo: Dumped lead-acid batteries in Guiyu, China. Credit: Basel Action Network, Flickr Creative Commons)

UN agencies along with the World Economic Forum, the Global Environment Facility, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development called for an overhaul of the current global electronics system this week in Davos, Switzerland.

The world produces as much as 50 million metric tons of electronic and electrical waste annually — weighing more than all of the commercial airliners ever made, according to UN Environment. This waste is actually worth over $62.5 billion.

Given that less than 20% of global e-waste is formally recycled, a new report from the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the UN E-Waste Coalition proposes a circular e-waste economy. The report, A New Circular Vision for Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot, says it is time to reconsider e-waste, re-evaluate the electronics industry, and reboot the system for the benefit of industry, consumer, worker, health of humankind and the environment.

“There is a lot of economic value in e-waste, particularly from such materials as gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium, among others,” the report notes. In addition, it points out that there is 100 times more gold in a metric ton of smartphones than in a metric of gold ore.

Last year, researchers discovered that extracting metals from e-waste costs 13 times less than mining ore.

The report outlines a new circular vision for electronics:

  • Design: Products designed for durability, reuse and safe recycling, substances of concern substituted out.
  • Reintegration of manufacturing scrap: Scrap metal from manufacturing is re-introduced into new components.
  • Repair, second life and durability: Products last longer and have second or third lives aided by advanced refurbishment and repair and efficient second hand markets. Some products sold as a service.
  • Higher product collection and return with incentives for consumers: Maximize the collection of end of life electronics. In developing countries old products are collected by formalized workers.
  • Advanced recycling and recapture: Policies to encourage recycling, and the integration of recycled content into new products. High tech recycling extracts broad range of materials and keeps them at the highest quality. All e-waste treated by the formal sector.

“The transition to a circular economy must take place in a way that benefits all stakeholders from the consumer to workers, government, businesses, entrepreneurs and society at large,” the report concludes. “There will be a need for mass collaboration, system changing ideas, new policy frameworks and new ways of doing business.”

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