Electronics for the world of tomorrow

Recycling e-waste as an opportunity

It’s hard to imagine a world without phones and tablets. Currently, it seems as if electronics are becoming more and more disposable. As such, e-waste is growing at an astonishing rate, growing three times faster than any other type of waste. It’s clear we are facing a big challenge. How can we make sure the next generation still has access to this technology and enough resources are available? During a special seminar on e-Waste, hosted by the Netherlands Embassy in Beijing and co-organized with the Swedish Embassy in Beijing, ISEAL Alliance and the South-North Institute for Sustainable Development (SNiSD), international speakers shared their ideas on reducing and coping with e-waste.

Research shows that recycling 3 billion sets of used mobile phones could save 240 thousand tons of raw materials. Re-using these raw materials saves the equivalent of the annual emissions of 4 million cars. As if this is not enough of a reason to start recycling, we also have to face the fact that the number of resources is limited. For instance, did you know 44 rare metals are used in the production of an iPhone? If you think about the number of phones in China alone, currently at 1.3 billion, this urges us to start thinking of alternative ways to re-use our disposed electronics and turn e-waste into value. It is a challenge, but also an opportunity. There is great potential in the e-waste recycling industry. For instance, the Chinese government is already working on policies such as the ‘regulations for e-waste recycling and disposal management’. By connecting all key actors involved, we can contribute to change.

Besides representatives of the Netherlands, China and Sweden, also businesses and NGOs were present. What are their thoughts on recycling and e-waste? With representatives of commercial companies, such as JD, of recyclers, such as R2 and Sims, and of NGOs such as SERI, there was a lively discussion on the developments surrounding e-waste.

What is waste?

What actually is waste? It was one of the topics which was very important to the attendees. “We need to start thinking about the supply-chain in reverse and act before an item becomes waste.” By acting earlier on in the usage cycle we can prevent items actually becoming waste and re-use valuable materials. We need to start talking about e-recovery instead of e-waste. However, preventing waste is also about rethinking production and electronics design. Attendees mentioned that producers can play an important role in this. “As an example: When I buy a phone, I also buy a new charger since it’s different every time. Think of the difference we can make, just making sure all producers use the same chargers.”

Collective policies are key

It’s not just important to standardize production. Also in the field of regulatory affairs collectivity and standardization is key. Developing global guidelines and regulations is key to tackling the challenge of e-waste. Currently, China is in the process of updating legislation in this field to ensure it fits the current situation. Also, across countries NGOs such as SERI work on developing regulatory guidelines which can be localized. One of the current challenges is also the actual processing of e-waste. New regulations make it difficult to transport it between countries. However, if a country is unable to dispose of it correctly this may cause problems.

How to cope with data

And let’s not forget that for e-waste we face an extra recycling challenge: coping with data. People in China seem hesitant to take advantage of normal recycling procedures, and the question what happens with their data may be one of the reasons. After all, especially in China where not just your personal life but also your financial life takes place on your phone, careful data recycling is an important aspect of e-waste recycling. As such, regulations on information security should always be part on any e-waste recycling initiatives.

Currently, there’s a big difference in legislation between European countries, China and other countries. Working towards more alignment across borders was a shared ambition of all attendees, to ensure equal resources and opportunities for the world of tomorrow.