The accelerating electronic waste crisis has been called a tsunami by the United Nations. And in 2019, it was the fastest-growing source of solid hazardous waste. The e-waste crisis is an intractable obstacle that demands wide-scale systematic solutions to how we design, consume, and dispose of electronics. The circular economy is that solution. Defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as “gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system,” a circular economy would preserve natural resources and mitigate climate change. Employing circular economy values requires increased energy efficiency, clean and renewable energy, as well as sustainably designed products that reduce and reuse material inputs.
Reliance on fossil fuel resources, which drive climate change, is not compatible with a circular economy. Designing out fossil fuel consumption starts with decreasing the energy intensity of the mining and manufacturing processes, where 85-95 percent of the carbon footprint from smartphone production emanates.
For manufacturing facilities, heat generation makes up two-thirds of industrial energy demand and relies heavily on natural gas and coal. The adoption of industrial heat pumps can recover and reuse heat, increasing efficiency. According to a Department of Energy report, despite high upfront costs, “The net operating cost savings (reduction in purchased energy minus operating cost) is sufficient to pay back the capital investment in an acceptable period.”
Energy efficiency in the mining industry depends on reducing the intensity of the comminution process (the crushing and grinding of materials). The comminution process is 50 percent of a mine's energy consumption and 10 percent of production costs. Electrifying comminution and mining operations would reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gasses.
Shrinking energy consumption will limit fossil fuel usage in the short term, but clean and renewable energy will be needed to power a circular electronics economy and mitigate climate change. Apple, the industry leader in smartphone production, is a leader in procuring renewable energy for its processing facilities. According to a 2020 press release, Apple had commitments from over 70 of its 200 suppliers to use 100 percent renewable energy.
But To create a circular electronics sector, the industry will have to embed sustainable thinking throughout the lifecycle of its products and the materials that compose it.
Longer device lifespans and more latitude in repairing electronics will help reduce demand for new products and keep materials in use longer, but population growth, shrinking poverty rates, and the desire for modern technology will outpace any gains. Still, companies should design their products to last and find ways to keep older goods relevant to consumers. That said, to preserve critical metals and minerals, companies will need to incorporate recycled materials into their supply chains.
Mining resources from recycled electronics has proven economically beneficial and can expand finite resource pools. A 2018 study found that recovering metals from e-waste was 13 times cheaper than from mines. And the prices to mine e-waste are also dropping annually. There is also vast potential for e-waste mining as there is 80 times more gold in a ton of cellphones than in an entire gold mine. Americans also dump phones worth $60 million in gold and silver combined each year.
The current linear take, make, waste economic model is a drain on our environment, public health, and natural resources. Adopting tenants of a circular economy is necessary to reduce the tsunami of e-waste entering landfills while providing more sustainable products.