Electronics can trigger a more circular, sustainable world – here’s how

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Michael Murphy, Chief Product Compliance Officer & Vice President Compliance Engineering and Environmental Affairs, Dell Technologies

  • Transitioning the electronics sector to circular practices is complex but necessary for a more sustainable future.
  • Re-using materials, adapting supply chains, and changing consumer perceptions will be challenging but key to ensuring a circular transition.

We want a world where there is less – or ideally, no – waste. In this more ‘circular’ world, we take, make and recreate in continuous loops, preventing waste from ever entering landfills or polluting our environment.

That approach can be a critical cog in tackling climate change, as a transition to renewable energy will only get us so far. If the world does not respond to the need for circularity then the resources needed for new products will not be as available as they currently are now.

Over the past few years, however, the world has become less circular, as repeatedly stressed in the annual Circularity Gap Report. By not maximizing circularity, we are not maximizing the tools at our disposal to protect our resources and work toward decarbonisation.

Applying circular strategies to the manufacturing of electronics is part of a much larger shift that needs to happen across industries. While using recycled content is never straightforward, understanding the challenges in a field as complicated as electronics is the first step on the path to a more circular future. sustainability

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

The World Economic Forum has created a series of initiatives to promote circularity.

1. Scale360° Playbook was designed to build lasting ecosystems for the circular economy and help solutions scale.

Its unique hub-based approach – launched this September – is designed to prioritize circular innovation while fostering communities that allow innovators from around the world to share ideas and solutions. Emerging innovators from around the world can connect and work together ideas and solutions through the UpLink, the Forum’s open innovation platform.

Discover how the Scale360° Playbook can drive circular innovation in your community.

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2. A new Circular Cars Initiative (CCI) embodies an ambition for a more circular automotive industry. It represents a coalition of more than 60 automakers, suppliers, research institutions, NGOs and international organizations committed to realizing this near-term ambition.

CCI has recently released a new series of circularity “roadmaps”, developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), McKinsey & Co. and Accenture Strategy. These reports explain the specifics of this new circular transition.

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3. The World Economic Forum’s Accelerating Digital Traceability for Sustainable Production initiative brings together manufacturers, suppliers, consumers and regulators to jointly establish solutions and provide a supporting ecosystem to increase supply chain visibility and accelerate sustainability and circularity across manufacturing and production sectors.

Connect to Learn More →

What holds back a circular economy for electronics?

With some materials and some products, the use of recycled content is straightforward. For example, people understand that when you toss a water bottle into a recycling bin, at some point it comes back as a new water bottle or something else made with the plastic. Using recycled content is not that simple with electronics products, due to the following factors:

  • Complexity of materials. According to “A New Circular Vision for Electronics” from the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), e-waste represents 2% of solid waste streams, but makes up 70% of the hazardous waste that ends up in landfill as these safe combinations for end use in products break down. There are a surprising number of elements from the periodic table that feature in electronics. Up to 60 elements from the periodic table can be found in complex electronics. All this complexity can make working with recycled-content materials tricky.
  • Finding sources. For materials like steel and machined aluminium, it can be more challenging today to close the loop and convert e-waste materials back into usable supplies for new components for electronics. In these cases, there is a need to look at other recyclables and waste materials from other industries, called industrial symbiosis. For instance, in some of our laptops today, we have used scrap carbon fiber from the aerospace industry to create carbon fiber-reinforced polycarbonate bases. We reclaim their scrap, chop it up and mix it with the plastic resin.
  • Supply chains. Existing global supply chains are predominantly linear – set up to move materials through manufacturing and then distribute the electronics to customers around the world. This means it’s challenging to intercept and integrate recycled content into the process. Global supply chains need to be reconfigured for ability to move products and materials to enable circularity for repair, reuse, recycling and manufacturing.
  • Perception. The perception challenge with consumers is real. Consumers are far more aware of the environmental impact of the products they purchase and look to make sustainable choices, but there is still the misconception that use of recycled and/or sustainable materials in new products means they are of lower quality.

What we’ve learned so far

A circular economy for electronics has long been an area of focus and innovation for Dell Technologies. We pioneered the use of post-consumer recycled plastics in our OptiPlex desktops starting in 2008. And in 2014 Dell was the first to achieve a certified closed-loop process which takes plastics from recycled electronics and processes it for use in creating new plastic parts for new computers. To date Dell has used millions of pounds of recycled plastic, closing the loop on plastic for more than 125 different product lines.

Our success has emboldened our approach, and last year we set a new moonshot goal for 2030 where for every product a customer buys, we will reuse or recycle an equivalent product, 100% of packaging will be made from recycled or renewable material, and more than half of product content will be made from recycled or renewable material.

And we are driving ourselves to uncover innovative new materials and processes to get to that goal. We have recently begun making some of our laptop lids from bioplastics from tree waste used in the paper making process. We’ve also spearheaded pilot programs to put recycled materials like rare-earth magnets from our take-back programs back into parts.

These changes have taught us key lessons about what’s needed to truly drive a circular economy for electronics. They include:

  • Design for circularity. We start with the end in mind: designing our products with the idea that they should be easy to upgrade, easy to repair and, when they’ve reached end-of-life, easy to disassemble for recycling. We’ve worked with the recycling industry to better understand what makes their job easier, reducing the numbers of screws and adhesives to allow them to process materials more quickly and thoroughly. In fact, our design and engineering teams regularly visit our electronics disposal partners (EDPs) to see the disassembly and sorting of our products first-hand and apply that learning to future designs. One of the future innovations our design team is working on would see a laptop that could be disassembled with the removal of a single pin.

    In line with best circular practices, we have long designed for easier repair and end-of-life in mind. Modularity, easy disassembly and minimal adhesive are all ways we do this today. Several Dell models have a 10/10 score in iFixit which rates products for their accessibility to fixers and we refurbish and resell products through our Dell outlet.
  • Integrate sustainability across business units. Sustainability and our commitment to the circular economy is increasingly embedded across our entire organization – every business unit, every function, understands its role in getting to our moonshot goal and leaving no path unexplored. For example, to increase our return streams, we’re building takeback into our “as-a-service” business models. Today, our Dell Financial Services (DFS) organization makes it easy for customers to lease products which, at the end of lease, get returned for refurbishment and resale.

    And we are using what we’ve learned here to scale for the future. We recently launched “Project APEX” which provides simplified access to our technology on-demand, which will create opportunities to extend the life of technology and increase the volume at which we can take back our technology to be refurbished or recycled. Spanning storage, servers, networking, hyperconverged infrastructure, PCs and broader solutions, integrating sustainability into this transformational program signals how invested we are in accelerating the circular economy. And it’s important to point out that these as-a-service initiatives are also financially beneficial. Making programs circular also makes business sense, optimizing costs and profit from the supply chain.
  • Be willing to experiment. Our approaches have an eye on the future. Our experience design group are leading an aspirational workstream to push the boundaries of circular innovation – experimenting with new materials, reinventing processes and pushing product design to the absolute limits of what is possible. These aspirational concepts include a laptop which halves the number of materials used to create it and the idea of using future as-a-service models to augment and design equipment that improves over time through using 5G and strong cloud connectivity to deliver regular, automatic updates to make products that don’t degrade, but get better.
  • Collaborate: One of the strongest contributors to our leadership is collaborating with our supply chain partners. Through these partnerships and relationships with our customers we have been able to further develop the capability and infrastructure to capture and reuse greater quantities and new materials, both from electronics at end-of-life as well as materials from other industries.

    And this collaboration will be critical as we move forward – between companies, partners, NGOs, governments, academia and international organizations. March saw the launch of the first-ever Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP), a collaboration Dell Technologies joined along with a range of other top electronics brands and global organizations outlining critical pathways to push the circular economy forward.

Such steps are key to creating industry-wide standards and common definitions for circular electronic products and services. Additionally, harmonization of regulations globally to ensure the ethical and responsible movement of materials across borders would help increase where they can be used for circular purposes which include repair, reuse and recycling.

“The circular economy is a journey, not a destination, but every step from every stakeholder will be critical.”

As an industry, we also need to drive demand for circular products and services to stimulate circular procurement of electronics at global scale. And in order to recycle and reuse electronic waste, we need to have a consistent and robust supply of out-of-use materials and a way of aggregating this waste for reuse and recycling. Where we can’t close the loop within our own electronic waste streams, we need to find, define and scale secondary waste materials from other industries. Only by joining forces can the electronics industry accelerate the transition to a truly circular economy.

Looking ahead

It’s not enough to ‘do less harm.’ For a more sustainable world, the technology sector must rethink its business models, shift away from linear sales and toward as-a-service models that better enable the recirculation of materials and the extension of lifespans.

We have focused on sustainability for decades and have developed a deep understanding of our responsibility and the role we need to play in protecting our planet. This allows us to drive innovation and new ways of manufacturing, creating products and bringing out-of-use products back into our supply chain to accelerate the circular economy, making a measurable, scalable, positive impact.

With these mindsets in place across the sector, IT can be an enabler for the broader circular economy. From collecting and analysing trusted data in real-time using edge computing and 5G wireless technologies, to redesigning global supply chains to create greater efficiencies and less waste, technology has the power to reshape the world.

The circular economy is a journey, not a destination, but every step from every stakeholder will be critical.

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