As a society, we are facing a monumental resource crisis – our current level of consumption is simply unsustainable. In 1969, our consumption of material resources was approximately equal to the planet’s ability to produce. However, in the last 50 years, the amount we consume across the board, including rare minerals and metals, has more than tripled. Should the current trend continue, by 2050 over 180 billion tons of materials a year will be needed to meet demand – far more than Mother Earth can hope to provide.
This overconsumption is happening in all areas of our life, but one of the worst is ‘e-waste’, i.e., our phones and laptops. This year over 1.5bn smartphones will be produced, each one filled with valuable minerals and metals. On average they will be kept for just 18 months before being replaced. Worse, over 60 percent of the materials from each one will not be recycled. Even those that are recycled lose 30 percent of the materials as their current design renders them unrecoverable. To end the catastrophic depletion of our natural resources, which is harming ecosystems and producing toxic waste, we have to change the way we live by moving towards a more renewable, recyclable and regenerative economy – often referred to as a circular economy – as quickly as possible. It’s a fight that requires both businesses and consumers to do their part.
The idea of a circular economy is simple. Planetary resources are no longer applied without considering the end state. Instead, everything is designed so that once a product has reached the end of its life, it can be broken down into components, each one of which is salvaged and recycled. In a fully realized circular economy everything – including resources, waste, emissions and energy usage – are all minimized, eliminated or reclaimed to be used again.
Much research has been done, including by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, into how these ideas could apply to e-waste. For example, by making phones modular so that if one part needs upgrading, there’s no need to replace the whole device, we could significantly reduce the number being thrown away each year. Another option is reducing the amount of data that we store on our actual phones by using the cloud. The more data we stream, the less memory is needed in our physical devices, which would reduce the rate of obsolescence.
However, although the blueprints for more sustainable devices are out there, little is being done by manufacturers to move towards a circular economy model. This is not because there isn’t a good economic reason to do so. Remember the 1.5bn phones being created this year? Each one has components valued around $100 – that’s $150bn of value that could be reclaimed through better design. McKinsey has estimated that moving to a circular economy model would unlock over $2tn of savings and economic benefits for society every year.
Instead, one of the major stumbling blocks involves companies not taking the time to find better processes or alternative materials to improve the sustainability of their products. For example, scarce materials such as neodymium, terbium or iridium, which are currently crucial in device manufacturing, could soon run out and therefore need to be replaced urgently.
This, along with many other changes, will only happen through rigorous R&D which prioritizes sustainability. New research continues to come out highlighting innovations that could yield significant environmental improvements. If R&D departments have access to this research, they can review, test and upgrade devices with newer, greener materials. That’s why it’s essential that companies provide first-class digital tools that can help researchers filter through to find the most relevant and up-to-date information for whatever problem – be it phasing out a particular material or redesigning a device – they are working on.
The burden for this change lies squarely with manufacturers and regulators, but what can we as consumers do to address the problem? First, all concerned consumers need to be strongly signaling to manufacturers that there is a market for longer-lasting, circular economy designed devices. This is not only more environmentally stable but has the side-benefit of saving us money by reducing our need to switch to the latest gadget.
Second, we should all be looking at ourselves and making a few behavioral changes. As the battle over plastics shows – which has reached fever-pitch this year – when consumers come together to demand change, business will respond. Everything from plastic bags, to bottles, to ring pulls are being phased out at record speeds. At both the national and state level, we’re seeing governments respond to consumer pressure by enacting measures like plastic bans – often imposing heavy fines for non-compliance.
The fact that 60 percent of all our devices go straight into the dump is unacceptable. There’s no point in manufacturers creating modular, recyclable phones if we simply toss them out. Companies respond to consumer behaviour and we need to show them there is a reason to change. We have innovative and cheap devices because that is what we as consumers have demanded so far – if we change our habits, companies will adapt. A few companies are already leading the way, such as the good work being done by companies like Thread and Looptworks around upcycling waste or reclaiming abandoned materials but, on the whole, device designers and manufacturers aren’t being pulled towards more sustainable solutions.
This inertia must change, however, because our current rate of consumption is rapidly damaging. At this rate, not only will we fill the earth with toxic waste and by-products, but we’ll also hit the limits of what the earth can provide, and we’ll soon have no more devices on which we’ve come to depend. Manufacturers need to step up to help fix the problem and all of us have a role in showing there is a market for a greener approach which considers the environment as well as the economics. Adopting a circular economy is the way forward to a more rounded economy which respects our planet as much as our wallet.