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Respecting the nine lives of discarded electronics

A new wave of electronic products will be presented by market leaders such as Samsung, Bosch and Panasonic in the coming months. With that in mind, it’s important to consider the untapped potential of recovering the ‘retired’ electronics they replace. ‘The holy grail is that, at some point, recycling won’t be necessary anymore,’ delegates at the E-waste World Expo in Frankfurt were told.

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‘You can only repair, refurbish or recycle something if you get the product back in the first place,’ says Jelle Slenters of Sims Recycling Solutions. He argues that, in an ideal world, there is no e-waste. ‘The DNA of Sims is removing waste from the value chain. When it comes to electronics, we follow the same principle.’

Reboot your thinking

In 2020, with more than 200 facilities worldwide, Sims refurbished almost four million products. This approach brought a revenue of US$ 4.9 billion (EUR 4.3 billion). The recycler has set up a management takeback collection scheme picking up e-scrap directly from more than 5 000 end users in 47 countries. Upwards of 10 000 tonnes of materials was recovered over the last five years.

‘Our programme prevents roughly 60 000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year, the equivalent of 1.3 million barrels of oil,’ Slenters says. In his view, accelerating progressive thinking is the true challenge of society. ‘It’s time for a reboot of our wasteful mindset.’

An important part of that is sharing positive changes happening in the industry. ‘I’m glad to say that many papers have been written on the topic of electronics recycling and that new R&D projects are being announced pretty much every year. Let’s all use our platform to celebrate these steps forward.’

Leading together

Recyclers don’t have to take those steps alone. Sims is collaborating with data company Surf Sara, which provides cloud-based services to universities and other institutions. ‘Together, we want to incentivise the return of used electronics to increase the recovery of usable equipment, parts and materials,’ Slenters explains. ‘How? We offer customers a discount if they hand in unwanted electronics. This offsets the transaction. This is an example of how industry players can secure both demand and supply in a sustainable way.’

Slenters introduces a new term, ‘greenstocking’, to explain how Sims has partnered with software major Oracle to collect e-scrap from 140 countries across the world. The idea is to reuse, refurbish or remanufacture as much as possible. This is proven by the partners’ motto: ‘reuse first, recycle last’.  

A total of 273 465 parts and components were harvested in the past two years. Annually, this translates to roughly 2 300 tonnes. In order to accomplish this, Sims has invested in smart systems to identify individual parts, model numbers, and brands and track them through the waste stream.

These are then matched to demand for IT equipment within Oracle divisions. Original equipment manufacturers have started to take responsibility to arrange take-back options for their products, Slenters points out. ‘We see more ambition at the top. Take-back is crucial in our sector, and so is leadership.’

Survey says…

‘Did you know that Germany hoards around 32 million tonnes of e-scrap?’ Alexander Süssmilch, consultant at circular economy compliance firm Cirecon, asks the expo audience. ‘Most people nowadays have more electronics at home than plants.’ Less than 20% of German e-scrap is officially recorded as being recycled.

Süssmilch cites a recent survey amongst college students indicating that a third (35%) of broken devices is repaired; 30% is stored away at home, almost 10% is thrown out with household waste and 10% is given away. The main reasons for keeping devices include: ‘I’ve upgraded to a newer model but I’m unsure what to do with my old one’ and ‘I still have data on my old device that I need to back up’.

When asked if they are interested in having the device repaired (either with help from a friend or in a shop), 61% of the students answered ‘yes’. Even with full warranty, a remarkable 10% said ‘no’. ‘Some people are simply not interested in extending the life cycle of their old devices,’ Süssmilch notes.

Meanwhile, around half of the students are willing to pay ‘a little more’ for an eco-friendly device. ‘The amount comes to about an extra 5%,’ the consultant reports. That doubled to 92% of respondents if they were convinced it was a fee for recycling.

E-waste doctors

An absence of spare parts and consumers’ unwillingness to have faulty electrical and electronic products repaired is typical while, at the same time, luxury household electronics are gaining in popularity, delegates in Frankfurt were told. A strong call for the ‘right to repair’ was voiced by Steffen Vangerow, founder of a German company of the same name which extends the useful lives of various electronic products.

‘My grandfather repaired practically everything – how times have changed,’ he told delegates during a roundtable session on repair. ‘Did you know every person in Germany creates around 20kg of e-waste per year? Can you even remember the last product you repaired?’ A slight murmur filled the room, a response that is unsurprising, Vangerow concedes. ‘There are barely any spare parts these days, or their prices are excessive. To many people, repair is simply not attractive anymore.’

‘From what I know, 70% of repair business want to grow their operations and repair more but don’t have enough employees,’ Vangerow says, pointing out craftsmen and women follow an apprenticeship of four to six years to be able to fix everyday household appliances. ‘This is ridiculous. I mean, are we a doctor? If so, please pay us as much!’

Small businesses usually only employ two or three people so they tend to focus on the practical day-to-day work. ‘Not many of us have time to participate in fancy events such as these, so we are never really heard,’ Vangerow laments. ‘You could say that, in an arena full of big global players, independent tech businesses are slowly dying.’

Reborn luxury

One member of the repair panel was Efrat Friedland, founder of Materials Scout, which helps companies develop sustainable brand strategies. She insists the industry doesn’t make refurbished products appear attractive enough. ‘Consider this: what does luxury mean to us? We think of words like new, shiny, sleek etc. At the heart of it, we’re dealing with an image problem,’ she insists.

‘We have to reinvent luxury. We have to promote second-life products with pride, rather than selling them via the back door.’ In Friedland’s opinion, everything we own reflects our individualism. This is certainly the case for a recycled product with a rich and varied history.

‘The questions for manufacturers are these: “Do we respect our devices?”; “Do we believe in them?” They need to realise the power of storytelling. You can create demand for practically anything. Brands must stop hiding recycled materials or second-hand components. Including them is great, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.’

Batteries: full steam ahead

Batteries have become omnipresent in the world of e-scrap, observed Dirk Harbecke of Canadian firm RockTech Lithium as he provided an update on battery metals and recycling solutions in this niche market. ‘Recycled lithium will become a major source of future battery raw material supply,’ he predicts.

Harbecke believes demand will notably outstrip the supply of raw materials for batteries in the coming years. By 2030, around 45% of lithium will be considered ‘missing’, in large part due to an estimated 31 million e-cars on the road at that time. Added to which, around three million diesel buses will have to be replaced by electric ones.

‘Let’s not forget it can take up to seven years to get a lithium mine online. And in not all cases does an exploration mission turn out to be a success. We’re talking about billions in investments potentially down the drain,’ Harbecke laments.

That’s why his company is bringing Lithiumhydroxide (LiOH) production to Germany, while expanding operations in North America. ‘We are building the most advanced lithium production hub in Europe, which will open its doors by the end of this year,’ Harbecke says. The facility will use pyro processing (without gas), hydro processing and purification with an annual capacity of 24 000 tonnes.

‘All of our by-products will serve the cement industry,’ he adds. ‘By 2030, we will provide a blockchain-enabled material passport to ensure cradle-to-cradle operations. By then, I believe 50% of our battery raw materials will come from scrap.’

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