Electronics are the fastest growing waste stream in the world. On average, the total weight (excluding photovoltaic panels) of global electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) consumption increases annually by 2.5 million metric tons. When these electronics near the end of their useful lives, they become e-waste or e-scrap. Not only can the aluminum, glass and plastic from e-scrap be recycled, but other valuable components that include copper, mercury and gold can be segregated and processed for reuse, and reintroduced back into the economy, generating less waste and more value.
Multinational technology corporation Microsoft recently became the first large company to join the right to repair movement, committing to increase its customers’ options to repair devices by the end of 2022. The announcement was a major and thus far unprecedented win for the movement, which aims to increase access to once-proprietary information, giving individuals and refurbishers the ability to repair and modify consumer electronic devices. (Apple also recently announced that it would make manuals and parts available to consumers who are interested in repairing their devices themselves.)
The right to repair means refurbishers can extend the life of a product for its current user or find the product a second home with a new user, which works toward reducing the 2.5 million metric tons of consumption. Wider acceptance of this movement would require original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to release information regarding the components they use in manufacturing, blueprints on how devices are put together and information on how parts and components can be replaced.
Microsoft plans to hire an independent consultant to study the ways increasing access to the parts and information could cut down on electronic waste. Increasing access to parts is a significant shift because oftentimes the manufacturer requires consumers to use their authorized services only rather than allowing the consumer to repair it themselves or going to a skilled refurbisher.
Dangers of e-waste
Overall, this movement could mean less e-waste is produced. The sheer volume of e-waste and its final destination are growing issues, as the recycling rate for e-waste is less than 20 percent globally, and in the U.S., it is less than 10 percent. It also is uncertain as to how the other 80 to 90 percent of e-waste is managed during the disposal process and the location of final placement. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an undetermined amount of used electronics are shipped from the U.S. and other developed countries to countries that lack the capacity to reject imports or to handle these materials appropriately.
Because these electronics contain toxic heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium and mercury, e-waste that is improperly discarded can potentially leach into groundwater and soil, which can be harmful to human health and our environment. That’s why, when electronics have reached end of life, they must be handled in a responsible and compliant manner, with a focus on solutions that reduce their potential environmental impact.
Failure to impose proper standards and enforcement could result in public health and environmental concerns, even in countries where processing facilities exist. If these end-of-life devices are instead sent to a legitimate, certified recycler, then no environmental harm is caused, and commodities generated can return to the reuse market as part of the circular economy.
Challenges in the way of a circular economy for e-scrap
Put simply, circulating devices back into the reuse market can slow the consumption of new electronics. Harvesting parts also can help in the manufacturing of new devices. The progress toward a circular economy has generated resistance from OEMs, as the right to repair movement allows used products to stay in circulation longer, therefore cutting down on the purchase of new products.
To ensure proper handling, more countries are taking action by creating policies to improve the collection of unwanted electronics. The annual Global E-waste Monitor reports that, since 2014, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation or regulation has increased from 61 to 78 countries. However, regulatory advances in some regions are slow, enforcement is poor and policy, legislation or regulation do not yet stimulate the collection and proper management of e-waste because of lack of investment and political motivation.
Future of e-waste and the right to repair movement
Beyond the right to repair, the future of electronics recycling ensures secure data destruction. For effective electronics disposal and recycling, companies like Clean Earth have established a dual focus: benefiting the environment by reducing waste while safeguarding private data.
An e-waste management partner should be committed to proper end-of-life management of electronics containing sensitive data and components hazardous to the environment backed by proper permits, certifications and available reporting. Consumers and businesses need to feel assured regarding what happens to their data when their electronics are spent. Every cellphone, GPS and laptop says a lot about an individual and their habits—how they bank, what they buy, where they drive—and it needs to be protected. All e-scrap recycling solutions also should confirm that data from discarded electronics are safe and secure, and teams handling the material should do their part to promote the correct treatment of WEEE to enable reuse and recycling.
The hope is that more companies will follow Microsoft’s lead in the future, and join the right to repair movement, as the ability to repair devices will ultimately reduce e-waste. Extending the lifetime of devices through repair is essential to meeting climate goals and creating a circular economy.