Extracting value from waste: A triple-win for consumer electronics - SDG Business Dashboard
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Extracting value from waste: A triple-win for consumer electronics

In the last decade, the high tech and consumer electronics and electrical (E&E) sector has experienced unprecedented growth, fuelled by ever falling costs and rapid obsolescence of an increasing range of products. There are now almost 3 billion smart phone users globally. By 2020, this is set to rise to more than 6 billion. The sector’s growth has driven positive change on a range of societal issues from financial inclusion to government transparency. However, a range of social, environmental and ethical challenges in the global E&E supply chain will require the industry to better future growth with the social and environmental imperatives encapsulated in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Many of the SDG targets represent opportunities for commercial growth and new product innovation, from the opportunities of SDG 11 in relation to the ‘Internet of Things’ for Smart Cities to growing number of anti-corruption and e-government electronic solutions and apps that can mobilise citizens for achieving progress on SDG 16. However, supply chain challenges around worker safety and labour rights as well as the growing challenge around e-waste and the sector’s environmental impacts will require the industry to focus on its alignment with SDG 6 (Clean Water), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and SDG 15 (Life on Land).

WRAP, UK’s leading charity advancing solutions for a resource-efficient economy, estimated that between 2013 and 2020 12 million tonnes of e-waste will be discarded in the UK. Rather than just being junk, the precious metals within this waste would total a value of GBP 7 billion. According to the United Nations University’s 2014 Global E-waste Monitor, less than 16% of all global e-waste was recycled in 2014, representing a loss of USD 52 billion worth of recyclable materials. It also continues to drive social and environmental impact of the sector’s ever-growing demand for precious metals, minerals and compounds, including copper, zinc and tin-oxide.

The lack of recovery of precious metals represents a missed opportunity to address these impacts and capture the billions of dollars of value encased in old smartphones, laptops, washing machines, TVs and toasters. But the industry should also take Winston Churchill’s advice to ‘never waste a good crisis’ to not only close the loop in production, but to also take the opportunity to address the impact of chemical production materials and toxic waste on the health of the sector’s workers, and the land and water-based ecosystems and communities in poorer nations where the majority of waste is dumped, often illegally.

Companies, as well as industry initiatives such as the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition, are beginning to respond to the challenge by adopting circular economy approaches where they can recover and reuse discarded goods to generate new products. These include new emerging disruptors like Fairphone as well as industry giants taking more modular approaches such as Dell. However, over 75% of electronics production is outsourced, making repair, recovery and recycling an enormous logistical challenge for the sector. Tackling this will require collaboration between companies on initiatives such as joint collection systems, as well as with governments to improve incentives for circular approaches and recycling and repair schemes and management systems in developed and emerging economies.