When the Closed Loop Foundation decided to determine the state of “circularity” in the world of electronics, its sights (and funding) landed on the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) and the Sustainability Consortium (TSC) at Arizona State University, where leading sustainability research is front and center. Carole Mars and Christopher Nafe, along with Jason Linnell from NCER, began the research that was recently published as the Electronics Recycling Landscape report more than a year ago.
I spoke with Carole about her overall impressions and key takeaways. She attests to the great progress that’s been made in this space over the past 5 or 6 years, but ultimately was surprised at just how negatively the scenario is viewed by the various stakeholders that constitute this ecosystem – from manufacturers to retailers to recyclers.
“I would like to see more action on the part of manufacturers,” Carole says, “but at the same time, manufacturers can’t be responsible for the whole problem.” We need solutions on every front. To those who think policy will solve the problem, she notes, “We have no idea what that policy should look like, especially as the weaknesses in our current system are exposed.” I’ll add that policy lags while technology leapfrogs – by the time policy is instituted, the challenges of new materials, applications, and scenarios have multiplied, leaving policy in perpetual catch up mode.
Carole sees some of the greatest opportunity in putting teardown of electronics closer to centralized collection points, limiting the number of times the same materials are transported before processing. In addition, advocating for the right to repair digital products could help stem the idea that recycling is the only option. Designing devices for ease of repair, even enhancement, and keeping devices usable longer is important to making electronics sustainable.
Carole’s greatest angst, and mine too, comes from the massive explosion of tiny devices, such as the myriad Internet of Things widgets, which are being deployed with no take-back mechanisms in place. She called my attention to “buy buttons” that allow the user to reorder a particular product just by pushing an Internet-enabled button – a button powered by a lithium-ion battery welded to the button itself. To our knowledge, there is no “right way” to handle these gadgets at end of life, or even think about how that would happen.
When it comes to the great proliferation of electronics, more and more, smaller and smaller, into every crack and cranny on the earth and below the sea, the likelihood of effectively reclaiming all electronics and closing the loop seems to have about the same probable outcome as Humpty Dumpty’s fall. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” could not put Humpty together again.
Got great ideas on how to get electronics out from the edges and back into the supply chain? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carol Baroudi works for Arrow’s Value Recovery business promoting sustainability awareness and action. She is the lead author of Green IT For Dummies. Her particular focus is on electronics in the Circular Economy, with an emphasis on the IT asset disposition stage, e-waste, and everything connected. Follow her on Twitter @carol_baroudi and connect with her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/carolbaroudi.