The $62.5 billion e-waste opportunity

by Clive Margolis, Inspirationalise

According to a new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) electronic waste (‘e-waste’) is worth at least $62.5 billion annually, more than the GDP of most countries. Much of this contains precious metals such as gold, copper and platinum – embedded mostly in circuit boards and difficult to extract. 

In this article:

  • what is e-waste?
  • what causes e-waste?
  • health problems related to e-waste
  • business opportunities related to e-waste

What is ‘e-waste’?  Electronic waste (‘e-waste’) results from the disposal of electrical or electronic devices. WEF estimates 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste containing gold, silver, copper and platinum was generated globally in 2016. 

What causes e-waste?  Surprisingly more than 50% of e-waste may result from discarded kitchen, laundry and bathroom equipment. ‘Culprits’ include:

  • Household appliances like fridges and freezers
  • Telecoms equipment
  • Lighting
  • Medical devices
  • Monitoring and control instruments

Most e-waste happens during manufacture. For example the electronics industry is the second-largest consumer of copper, 70% of which is mined. Mining copper can be very damaging to the environment. For every kilogram of copper mined, at least 210 kilos of mine waste is generated, along with other polluting effects.

Health problems related to e-waste

Laptops contain many toxic ingredients including lead, cadmium, dioxins, furans, phthalates and brominated flame retardants. Many of these end up on one of the worlds e-waste mountains, like the e-waste centre of Agbogbloshie, Ghana, where electronic waste is burnt and disassembled with no safety or environmental considerations. In places like this 80% of the children have been found to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Inhabitants often suffer from chronic nausea, headaches, chest and respiratory problems.

What about future generations?  Our over-use of natural resources not only causes problems for us, but ‘steals’ from future generations.

Business opportunities  There are great opportunities in discovering new materials and techniques to deal with and eliminate e-waste.

  1. Better design – the ‘circular’ economy

The World Economic Forum believes developing a waste-free ‘circular’ economy represents a $4.5 trillion opportunity by 2030.There are also big economic opportunities in the discovery of new ways to produce, dispose of and recover the materials from electronics. According to Waste to Wealth: the Circular Economy Advantage (Jakob Rutqvist and Peter Lacy, 2015) the Circular Economy is “a radical rethink of the relationships between markets, customers and natural resources”. 

The Circular Economy concept decouples economic growth from the extraction and consumption of natural resources.  It is a zero-waste model which reuses or enriches materials rather than returning them to landfill. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works with several influential businesses including Google, Philips, Nike and Unilever to demonstrate circular innovation at scale. 

Case Study 1: Printing as a service (Hewlett-Packard)

HP’s Instant Ink service increases cartridge recovery and recycling by using connected printers to send personal and small business customers replacement cartridges before the customer runs out of ink. Rather than purchasing the cartridges outright subscribers pay a monthly fee based upon the number of pages they print. (link: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/bringing-printing-as-a-service-to-the-home)

Case Study 2: Incentivised return

Re-Tek uses an ‘incentivised return’ business model, offering incentives to medium-to-large public and private sector organisations for the return of used IT products and electronics. About 80% of these are refurbished and returned to the market. The company processes around 7000 ICT items per month. The resulting landfill is just 1%. (link: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/establishing-a-reverse-supply-chain-for-electronics)

2. Innovative disposal

Electronics take-back schemes: the supplier takes back your device and disposes of it responsibly. One is initiated by Dell: http://www.dell.com/learn/us/en/uscorp1/corp-comm/global-takeback-leadership. 

There are also several community-based take-back schemes, one run by Brighton and Hove: 

https://www.juicebrighton.com/news/brighton-news/brighton-council-wants-your-old-weee/

Commercial disposal: Apto Solutions were finalists in the Circulars 2018. Since inception, Apto has repositioned over 10,140,422 technology assets and has compliantly recycled over 3,223,177 assets, saving over 20,063 metric tons of e-waste from ending up in land fills.

Binee (binee.com) provides information on what e-waste to recycle and where it goes; it also gives instant credits for recycling that can be used at major retailers.

3. Legislation

In the UK the EU WEEE Directive applies and retailers and distributers must provide either a free, in store, take back service to customers or set up an alternative, free take back service. If the supplier does  not have your own take back service, they must join the Distributor Takeback Scheme (DTS). The WEEE Directive became law in February 2003. 

In the US many States have their own regulations. The National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES) provides recommendations on steps the federal government, businesses, and all Americans can take toward achieving the goals identified in Executive Order 13693, “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade.”

4. Materials recovery

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, led by chhemistry professor Steve Foley and PhD students Hiwa Salimi and Loghman Moradi, are behind an environmentally-friendly solution that extracts gold from electronics.

“By just passing electronic waste through it, literally in ten to twenty seconds, all the gold is leeched,” says Foley. “Literally 99.9 per cent of the gold is gone within seconds, leaving behind all the other metals.” (link https://globalnews.ca/news/3250428/gold-mining-takes-on-a-new-meaning-at-the-university-of-saskatchewan/)

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