Low commodity values for materials recovered do not cover the costs of responsible treatment for used electronics.
Smaller, lighter and more integration is the promise of the latest electronic devices. The attention has been towards the forward movement of devices from raw materials to a finished good, rather than how to make current and future devices more circular. The focus for used electronics today are products that were on the market ten to twenty years ago, with an infrastructure designed to manage large, heavy, and metal-rich devices.
In collaboration with the National Centre for Electronics Recycling and support from the Closed Loop Foundation, The Sustainability Consortium released the Electronics Recycling Landscape Report. This report considers where the electronics and electronics recycling industries are today, and the challenges and opportunities that will need to be addressed over the next five to ten years and what is required to create a more efficient and responsible used electronics management system in the United States. Many of the stakeholders interviewed for the report noted they didn't feel the system in place meets those expectations today, underscoring the need to design a system that meets today's as well as future needs.
One challenge highlighted by multiple stakeholders as a significant issue is device collection and management logistics. The "last mile problem" for supply chains becomes a "first mile problem" when discussing used devices – how do you recollect and centralise used devices as efficiently as they were distributed to homes and businesses? The greatest management system is useless if there is no material entering the system. Ideas proposed to improve collection centred on how to use emerging on-demand transportation services or the existing delivery system to mimic the very effective informal collection systems seen in India and other developing countries.
The logistics of moving used devices through to their final disposition constitutes one of the single largest costs related to managing used electronics, as low commodity values for materials recovered do not cover the costs of responsible treatment. The current system uses sequential material movement across a highly distributed network where each stage takes a slice of the total value, until there is no further value and the remaining material is disposed of, usually into a landfill. Export, legal or illegal, is also a logical next step, which moves material to someone else somewhere else who can continue to find value, oftentimes with tragic outcomes for the workers, communities, and environment in which it is handled.
Streamlining material movement, centralising hazardous materials management, and making device assessment and disassembly more efficient will be critical for handling the small, lightweight devices on the market today. One model proposed is a hub-and-spoke system that replicates retail distribution routes in reverse, with centralised facilities for device treatment. The output would be purer streams of materials headed for higher value uses than mixed material export or facilities designed to deal with hazardous materials, such as batteries. An interesting opportunity to repurpose knowledge and existing models to create a new, more efficient materials management system.
The electronics recycling industry is still grappling with legacy material such as CRT displays with leaded glass and mercury lamps from flat panel displays, both of which pose problems for human health and the environment if not handled responsibly. Not considering future material sets up refurbishers and recyclers for the same reactionary response to the oncoming waves, but without the support of a system designed to handle smaller, lower value devices. It would not be surprising to learn that solutions, or at least really good starting points, for the question of logistics for used electronics already exist and are just waiting for the right cross-discipline conversation to happen. Collectively, we can create a much better system that is in place today, and not consign this remarkable technology to a landfill.
Dr. Carole Mars is the Senior Research Lead at The Sustainability Consortium, Arizona State University, responsible for the development of the Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System for manufactured and formulated goods supply chains. In addition, she is the Principal Researcher for Leadership Initiatives at TSC related to consumer adoption of low temperature wash for laundry and Electronics and the Circular Economy, the latter of which addresses knowledge gaps around the disposition of electronic devices reaching the end of their first useful life. Prior to joining the Consortium, Dr. Mars worked as a process engineer in the semiconductor equipment manufacturing industry. Dr. Mars earned her PhD at Pennsylvania State University, in surface analytical chemistry and her bachelor of science in chemistry at the University of Arizona.