It’s time to get serious about e-waste

According to a United Nations University study, Asia generated 24.9 megatonnes (Mt) of e-waste in 2019, of which only 2.9 Mt was documented as having been properly recycled. Much of this is incinerated or placed in landfills, causing pollution, human health hazards and the loss of valuable finite resources.

Fifty million metric tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) are generated every year. Not only is e-waste the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, but Asia is the largest producer of e-waste in the world and is one of the largest dumping sites for e-waste from other countries. 

This is a challenge and a missed opportunity. Experts estimate that materials in global e-waste are worth $62 billion per year — and that value is currently lost in landfills and incinerators.

Furthermore, materials such as copper, rare earths and cobalt, are vital in the transition to renewable energy. For example, in China alone, Forum research finds that 280 million end-of-life mobile phones enter people’s household drawers each year, not to be recycled. The materials in these phones could find new use in second-life applications. 

But creating a system that can grasp this circular opportunity requires scaled change from a manufacturing perspective. Manufacturing firms can play an important role in shaping systems that eliminate waste and ensure goods aren’t simply discarded after their first use. A way to start this process is via the circular economy

Life’s a cycle 

Traditionally, manufacturers have operated with a linear economy — produce, sell, use and incinerate/landfill. In a circular economy, the intention is to produce zero waste or pollution. Instead, products, parts and materials are used, cared for, repaired, reused and recycled as much as possible.

In the manufacturing realm, this means that products are designed to be reusable and are easier to repair. This is vital if we are to transform the electronics industry’s impact on human health, the environment and biodiversity. The industry urgently needs to become more sustainable and resilient, but how can manufacturers develop a strategy based on these principles?

Moving forward should include research into understanding flexible remanufacturing, or how reverse logistics can be harnessed to increase productivity and active disassembly for efficient material recovery. Reverse logistics is a type of supply chain management that moves goods from customers back to the sellers or manufacturers, while flexible manufacturing adapts to changes in the type and quantity of the product being manufactured. Manufacturing also has the potential to develop closed loop and circular solutions. 

Recognizing what waste is generated at each stage of the value chain can also yield several opportunities to redesign waste’s value. Let’s take South Korean multinational electronics corporation, Samsung, as an example. Upon examining their TV value chains, two realisations became clear — TV packaging was often disposed of, and many TV buyers were purchasing additional cabinets for their TV accessories. 

Samsung came up with its own solution, the award-winning Serif Eco-Packaging. By introducing corrugated cardboard with a dot matrix design, Samsung enabled customers to breathe new life into TV boxes by reassembling them into an accessory shelf or even a cat house. As a result, these boxes are directed away from landfills and additional value is created for consumers. 

With a circular business model, manufacturing companies can achieve much stronger value chain relationships. But to reap the rewards, manufacturers will not only need to re-examine and re-configure their operations, but also explore how they adapt their enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions to meet the new demands of these sustainable models. 

Companies can also contribute to the circular economy by purchasing reused or refurbished plant equipment. A reliable automation parts supplier can offer reused or fully refurbished parts to keep your facility operating in a sustainable way. This can reduce the waste created by unnecessarily purchasing new parts and save manufacturers money in the process. Good part suppliers will also typically offer a twelve-month warranty for refurbished parts.

This will go a long way to preventing Asia from generating 24.9 Mt of e-waste each year, dramatically reducing the amount of waste being incinerated or ending up in landfills. By developing a good circular economy, along with a relationship with a reliable automaton supplier, manufacturers can create an e-waste strategy to ensure products and materials are not wasted.