Electronics make people’s lives easier and contribute to the development of industries and the acceleration toward a digital world. Yet, it generates adverse effects and a significant ecological footprint. To be in line with sustainable electronics, we have learnt that a circular economy is essential for carbon neutrality in the electronics sector. It begins by changing how we view, design, and buy electronic products.
The circular economy agenda must include a discussion on electronic waste, commonly known as e-waste, which refers to different types of electronic and electric equipments. The goal of a circular economy is to generate no waste. Resources, components and products are used as often as possible before having to be repaired, reused, or recycled. From home appliances to small networks of solar panels, "smart" phones, and other ITC items, electronic gadgets and electrical equipment offer enormous benefits to humanity and open up new potential for development.
These are beneficial instruments for society that can be employed to improve welfare, expand education, offer high-quality healthcare services, facilitate trade, and address issues brought on by climate change. For such goals to be achieved, digitization and ensuring widespread connectivity are necessary.
However, significant amounts of resources are wasted throughout the entire value chain of such products, from the extraction of precious ores (such as iron, copper, and gold) used in the manufacturing of electronic products to their production, transport, retail sale, consumption, and elimination from the circuit. When electronic and electrical equipment is discarded, potentially harmful components are left behind, damaging the environment and posing health concerns to recycling workers. The weight of a commercial aircraft is equal to an estimated 50 million tons of electronic and electrical e-waste created globally per year.
Tackling E–Waste through Circular Economy
In the EU, only 40% of all e-waste is recycled, with the remaining 60% being disposed of without being sorted. Each Member State has a different recycling rate. According to recent Eurostat statistics, Croatia presented the highest percentage of e-waste recycling in 2017 at 81.3 percent, while Malta had the lowest rate at 20.8 percent. The paper "A New Circular Vision for Electronics" published in 2019 by the World Economic Forum argues that the amount of waste generated globally will triple by 2050 if nothing else is done in addition to what is already being done now.
It is important to consider the opportunities within e-waste. One ton of mobile phones, for instance, contains 100 times more gold than one ton of ore from which such gold is extracted. The extraction of materials from electrical devices emits much less carbon dioxide than mining does. The value of operating electronic products and their components is higher than the value of the raw materials they contain. Therefore, prolonging the lifespan of products and reusing component parts generates increased financial gain. Another option is to develop a more circular economy, in which resources are not extracted, consumed, and thrown away but rather tapped into and repurposed to generate respectable and long-lasting employment.
The European Commission has prioritized the reduction of electronic and electrical waste in the new Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP). In addition, in 2011 the directive restricted the use of hazardous materials in electrical and electronic equipment and implemented a set of regulations requiring importers to conduct specific general supplier checks. The suggested plan outlines immediate goals, including eco-design, the "right to repair", enhanced general reusability, and the implementation of a standard charger for mobile phones and other devices, and the development of a reward system to promote the recycling of electronic equipment. E-waste is made up of an intricate variety of substances, some of which are hazardous.
The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive strives to support sustainable production and consumption by:
assisting in the recovery of secondary raw materials and the efficient use of resources through reuse, recycling, and other kinds of recovery
increasing environmental performance throughout the electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) life cycle
These goals must be accomplished in order for the Directive to:
set goals for the collection, recovery and recycling, and mandate the separate collection and proper treatment of WEEE
make it more difficult for exporters to conceal unlawful shipments of WEEE, assisting European countries in their fight against illegal waste exports
call for the harmonization of national EEE registrations and reporting to lessen the administrative burden
The new circular action plan of the EU lays the road for a more competitive and cleaner Europe. The new Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) was approved by the European Commission in March 2020. It is one of the cornerstones of the European Green Deal, the continent's new plan for sustainable development. The EU's shift to a circular economy will relieve the strain on the planet's natural resources and provide jobs and sustainable growth. Additionally, it is necessary to stop the loss of biodiversity and reach the EU's 2050 climate neutrality goal.
The new action plan announces initiatives for every stage of a product's life cycle. It focuses on product design, promotes circular economy practices and sustainable consumption, and works to prevent waste and keep the resources in utilisation as long as possible inside the EU economy. It introduces legislative and non-legislative actions aimed at sectors where EU action adds actual value.
The short life cycle of new devices is one of the reasons why businesses do not opt to recycle their e-waste. Most devices are used for ever shorter lengths of time before being thrown away, according to a study conducted by the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA). This represents a marketing strategy to increase sales. However, it deters responsible people from using recycling techniques. “Many devices have too short a life. From an ecological standpoint, that is not acceptable,” argued UBA’s President, Maria Krautzberger.
According to the Eurostat database, e-waste management is one of the 10 indicators of progress. From the perspective of the circular economy, e-waste recycling operations are one of the areas with a considerable potential to apply the framework of the circular economy on.
Chemical compounds are separated throughout the recycling process so that they can be sold as raw materials and used to create new products. At the laboratory SGARGE, they have decided to automate one of the important stages of recycling, disassembly and sorting, to increase the number of chemical components recycled. Only 12,5 percent of e-waste is currently being recycled. Therefore, more effective approaches to waste management must be developed. A robotic e-waste monitoring system enables enterprises to keep tabs on the quantity of waste generated and, using this information, to develop an appropriate strategy for e-waste disposal.
Additionally, it is our collective responsibility as engaged and active citizens to influence the environment around us in a way that promotes e-waste recycling and raises awareness on the issue. Education is a means to increase our knowledge of how e-waste has become a global issue and increase motivation to start taking tiny steps on a personal level. Additionally, as we become more conscientious, there will be more room for research and development and the chance for society to invent new processes and technologies to advance e-waste recycling and management.