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How does a circular economy look in e-waste management?

- 5 minute read

To do sustainable business, we need to keep generating the materials and products in use for as long as we can. It makes both environmental, social and business sense. This means we have to leave behind the traditional, linear make-use-dispose economy we’re so accustomed to. 

Information technology and consumer electronics is a major consideration in the paradigm shift towards a circular economy due to its prevalence and pervasiveness in our lives. This focus is driven not just by the opportunity to extend product life, but to also properly manage hazardous materials and recover resources, including conflict minerals.

So how can we deal with e-waste in a circular economy?

E-waste and a circular economy

In their report, ‘A New Circular Vision for Electronics’, the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), write:

"Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) are produced, equivalent in weight to all commercial aircraft ever built; only 20% is formally recycled. If nothing is done, the amount of waste will more than double by 2050, to 120 million tonnes annually."

They state:

  • In 2017, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste was generated.
  • By 2021, the annual volume will be 52 million tonnes.
  • By 2040, the carbon emissions from the production of electronics will make up 14% of total emissions.

To bring about a sustainable, circular economy, products need to be designed with reusability in mind. They must be durable, long-lived and easily recyclable. Importantly, the design and innovation experiences made by organizations must be accessible. It isn't worth having one company creating products for a circular economy when one hundred aren’t. This means everyone has to become a stakeholder in an equitable economy. 

To pare it down to its bare bones, a circular economy is built from the following practices:

  • Better design: Products that are made to be reused and recycled, with toxic substances phased out.
  • New products made from recycled materials: For example, rare earth metals such as cobalt and non-hazardous materials that can be introduced into new devices.
  • Promoting second lives and repairing: Products can be repaired or updated to enjoy second or even third lives.
  • Enhanced recycling: Social, political or economic policies need to be created to encourage or set in law the recycling of electronic devices. This should be combined with next-generation recycling where a wide range of materials are extracted from e-waste and reused at commodity-grade levels. 

Various economic benefits come from a circular economy for e-waste management. For example, this model has the potential of reducing consumer costs by 7% by 2030 and by 14% by 2040, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As the price of precious metals and minerals fluctuates and increases, having the option to reclaim these materials from old tech if that tech can’t be repurposed or reused makes economic sense. In that frame of mind, e-waste can be seen as a growing resource.

Additionally, recycling can add value to the commodity itself. If a recycled material is clean and can be fed into a process to make new products, this increases its value. 

Similarly, with e-waste becoming a commodity, there will always be innovation - and with innovation, job production. Already, e-waste recycling operations are making use of this new industry, creating work for many.

To explore our infographic, ‘The Criticality for a Circular Economy’, covering the full case for enabling a circular economy, click here.

So what do circular economy practices look like in real life?

Example one: Second life battery energy storage systems (BESS)

Finding true value in e-waste is by extending their life. We can do that through repurposing them for another use. 

The BESS process utilizes the retired batteries of electric vehicles for a wide variety of both on and off-grid applications. Many older batteries still have up to 80% of their life left, meaning the choice to reuse them makes complete business and environmental sense.

For example, when energy is generated from renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar, it needs to be stored. BESS solutions offer this at a fraction of the environmental impact of other storage types. 

Extending the life of these batteries by utilizing them within BESS is one way the transition towards a circular economy is incentivized; a transition made up of countless smaller changes. Not only does it facilitate a move towards a more circular economy, but it also helps to stimulate the adoption of renewable energy by lowering the cost of battery storage. 

BESS closes the loop on scarce metal resources within manufacturing - a key advantage for businesses looking to limit their environmental impact. As the world slowly phases out fossil fuels and sustainably-sourced electricity becomes the energy of choice, alternative power sources will become more and more in demand for a variety of businesses. 

E-waste recycling is one part of the circular economy puzzle - something we at TES are piecing together year upon year. To explore our commitments, initiatives and achievements, as well as information regarding the transition towards a circular economy from our perspective, download our report. 

Example two: Recycling lithium-ion batteries

If a battery can’t be repurposed, then it gets recycled.

Li-ion batteries are used to power everything from your smartphone to your alarm system, amongst countless other devices and appliances. They’re widely used in part because they’re cheap, light and powerful.

The end of their use is evidently an environmental issue, as Li-ion batteries contain both heavy metals and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) amongst other things, so specialists must undertake their recycling. Another issue is Li-ion batteries are a common cause of facility fires, with 38% of all waste facility fires caused by faulty batteries. 

Fortunately, the modern waste facilities we previously described can effectively recycle these batteries, refining the materials back into commodity grade elements such as cobalt, aluminum and copper.

Single-source solutions such as these are key implementations for those businesses looking to support the transition to a circular economy. You can read more about recycling lithium-ion batteries in our Sustainability Report. Read on to the end of this blog to download. 

Download our sustainability report

At TES, we have an ongoing commitment to implementing sustainable practices and innovation within our work. To explore just how sustainable we are and what we’re doing to attain greener business practices, both for ourselves and our partners, read our sustainability report.

Inside, there’s information on our ethics and business conduct, how we protect the environment and our innovations within promoting sustainable business practices and a circular economy, amongst many other key highlights. 

To download your copy, simply click the button below. 

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