Each month, we will highlight a recent development, initiative or trend in the technology and SDGs landscape. In this month’s story, we look at the circular economy.

With growing recognition of the impacts of electronic waste and supply chains, corporates are implementing circular economy solutions to reduce reliance on finite materials, recover valuable minerals and reach new customers and markets.

A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of life.

Growth in the innovation, availability and uptake of electronic devices brings exciting opportunities to improve the way we live and work. However, this is also giving rise to growing amounts of e-waste and electronics is the fastest growing waste stream globally. Since the Chinese ban on e-waste imports, South-East Asian countries have become top destinations for e-waste and are facing critical levels of pollution as e-waste releases toxic materials into the soil, groundwater and atmosphere. 

Raw materials used in electronic products can have broader supply chain impacts. Recent examples include deforestation in the Amazon as a result of artisanal mining for gold and minerals, and the use of child labour in cobalt mines in the Congo.

The evolving regulatory space is incentivising a shift to circular business models. Extended Producer Responsibility schemes exist in countries such as France and Germany. Technology companies face criticism for planned obsolescence of products, and right to repair bills are being prepared in the United States in 2019.

Corporates are pioneering circular solutions to shift current business models

Technology companies are demonstrating that circular supply chains make commercial sense. Electronic products contain valuable materials such as gold, silver, platinum and copper - recovering these materials presents a financial opportunity. Already it can be more efficient to extract a ton of gold from old circuit boards than it is to rely on extracting finite materials from the ground. The gold in the world’s e-waste is estimated to equal as much as 11% of the total amount of metal mined each year.

One opportunity is the development of technologies to dismantle and extract metals from waste. Apple recently launched the recycling robot Daisy which can disassemble 200 iPhones an hour. The urban e-waste mining refinery BlueOak Resources supports smaller collectors who can’t reach the mass quantities needed to send products to large-scale smelters. Ronin8 address the challenge of recovering all materials in electronics - whereas many recyclers destroy non-metal materials to capture the value of metals, their technology separates the two.

Minimising e-waste starts with the design phase of products. Design decisions can make repairs and end-of-life recycling an easier task. This can include using standard parts or avoiding adhesives as well as making spare parts easily available. Companies like Fairphone produce a growing number of products that are repairable and upgradable.

The use of secondary materials is another critical opportunity area. Apple announced a goal of moving to a closed-loop supply chain and recently launched new Macbooks made with 100% recycled aluminium sourced from old Apple products. Dell has shown success in using closed-loop plastic collected from its take-back channel, and helped found the NextWave Plastics coalition which aims to create a global network of supply chains designed for collecting and reusing plastics.

If channelled mindfully, the proliferation of technology can support delivery of Global Goals. As the footprint of the technology sector grows, there are significant opportunities for the sector to contribute to the targets set out in SDG12 Responsible Production and Consumption.

Transparency and disclosure of life cycle impacts including supply chain and end of life sets the foundation for circular economy opportunities.

2030Vision aims to provide a platform for collaboration as companies shift to more circular business models which promote resource efficiency and reduce environmental, economic and social costs.

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