Your cellphone entertains you, it saves you time (and potentially even your life), it educates you, it feeds you when you pay with it at the grocery store, it takes you where you want to go—in other words, it is an integral part of your life. All electronics exist for a purpose. The question is: What is the price we pay for them, both in currency and from an Environment, Health & Safety perspective?

Collectively, we are the ones who decide which needs and wants electronics should actually serve. However, we live on a planet with limitations: limitations of raw materials, limitations to what the environment can withstand, limitations in terms of distances and limitations on the usability and availability of energy. So, we need to balance the level of demand for electronics with the impact those electronics will have—we need to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. In sustainability terms, that means life cycle thinking.

You’ve got your cellphone in your hand. But it came from somewhere, someone manufactured it and it’s going to end up somewhere after you’re done using it. So, in order to understand the impacts of your cellphone, we have to look both backward and forward in the timeline of the product.

Let’s start at the beginning. In order to produce your cellphone, we have to find sources of raw materials and extract them from the earth, concentrate them, purify them and form them. In the case of your cellphone and most other electronics, that means metal and mineral mining and crude oil extraction. It means the depletion of materials and the use of various kinds of energy. The raw materials are processed and formed and finally become components and ultimately products, a transition that requires energy consumption, as do the transportation and logistics.

Let’s say we have caught up to the cellphone in your hand. You just purchased it. Now you start using your phone, again consuming energy. You plug your phone in at night. But where does your electricity at home come from? Is it derived from a fossil-fuel-burning source? We need to know. And how do you actually use your cellphone? Each of us determines how often and for how long we use our devices. Lastly, at some point, you will convert your phone into waste, regardless of its ability to continue functioning or not.

The process I’ve just described is linear thinking: Take – Make – Waste. Today, that is still somehow considered state-of-the-art thinking. But now many people are starting to think in circular terms, striving toward more sustainable behavior. And circular thinking’s goal is to establish a circular economy.  

First, let’s answer the question: Why is circular thinking—or systems thinking—considered more sustainable? Circular thinking is considered more sustainable than linear thinking in the life cycle of electronics, because it means we try to create a closed loop in which we do not lose any materials or produce any waste. In other words, in circular thinking, waste and emissions are always perceived as having value. So, in a circular economy we restrict product design to include only valuable substances that stay in the technosphere and that have no interaction with the outside environment. If materials stay within the technosphere, they cannot have a negative impact on the environment. That’s why circular thinking is perceived as more sustainable in electronics. In our cellphone example, it means no materials or emissions are lost in the manufacturing, use and end-of-life stages in the life cycle of the phone.

Now the critical question is, how can we sustainably transition from a linear economy to a circular economy in electronics, avoiding nonsustainable efforts (e.g., the huge difficulty posed for logistics in trying to collect miniature-sized constituent parts)? Closing the loop in circular economy is not necessarily as simple as it first appears, especially in electronics.

For example, many people believe recycling is always more sustainable. And yes, the technical efforts of recycling are often less than those necessary to produce virgin material. Yet, often a recycled (or secondary) material has a lower quality than the virgin (or primary) material, and the energy required to improve recycled material to a quality that compares with virgin material is often more than the energy expended in simply extracting the virgin material directly from the environment. And on top of technical processing, recycling requires additional efforts for collection and take back schemes, proper material identification and meaningful separation of material fractions and the related logistics. In other words, circularity requires energy and effort. If the energy and effort to close the loop to achieve circularity are greater than those in the take-make-waste model—thereby having a worse environmental impact than the “state of the art” activity—we have a bit of a dilemma.

To avoid that dilemma, we really have to analyze the environmental impacts of the entire life cycle of the cellphone in its current, linear process. Then we need to compare those impacts to the impacts of the circular alternative. Lastly, we need to examine all the steps in the transition between the current linear process and the future circular process in order to avoid starting a transitional trend that negatively impacts the environment, human beings or the economics of doing business. We need to quantify the environmental impacts, the economic aspects and the socio-ethical effects.

Within these technical, business and cultural frameworks, it may prove useful to look at the four building blocks from Ellen McArthur:

1. Design

2. Reverse logistics

3. Business models

4. Internal and external conditions

Numbers 1 and 2 are more related to the technical processes, and 3 and 4 are more related to the economic and social characteristics. Let’s take a look at each of these in greater detail.

Design

For circular economy in electronics, the design needs to restrict energy use to renewables and material use to recycled, excluding primary and virgin resources. The product needs to be designed for optimal use—it needs to be efficient, have a long lifespan and be repairable and maintainable. The company needs to design the product for a closed-loop system, meaning designed for disassembly, reusability, recyclability—a no-waste system. Such latter, end-of-life considerations in the design automatically lead to a smooth transition into circularity for reverse logistics, retrieving the used devices or parts back into the circular loop.

Reverse Logistics

With an optimal design, reverse logistics should ensure a 100% closed-loop situation. That means companies don’t need to expend effort to collect, disassemble and recycle or reuse the product. It’s all part of the plan. Reverse logistics also injects value into the material, making it equivalent in quality, thereby avoiding the need to consume new resources.

Business Models

In addition to supporting the above technical characteristics, business models have to support the trends into dematerialized services and a renewed focus on the fulfilment of needs. That is, the way toward circularity in electronics is to reduce the need for disposable, physical products. As soon as I no longer need a product—while still having my specific wants fulfilled—I will be more environmentally sustainable and much more circular. So, business models need to support the technical characteristics that achieve greater sustainability while moving the business toward modular repairability and lease and lend business frameworks.

Internal and External Conditions

Every business has to consider external conditions. In electronics, that means mainly considering all regulations for dealing with waste. For example, in Europe, you can’t just ship electronic waste across an international border. Internally, within a company, decision-makers have to allow and encourage the company culture to become aware of the negative effects on business caused by any lack of sustainability. Stakeholders will have to encourage a shift in thinking within their companies. Right now the status quo is that selling more is better. But in circular economy, the opposite is true. In circular economy, selling fewer products is better, because you are leasing and lending rather than selling, and thereby having the chance for a lower impact on the social, economic and environmental dimensions. In other words, people within companies will have to learn to think in opposition to the current more-sales-is-better business process.

Sustainable Business Theory & Practices

We are now starting to form a sustainable business theory for electronics. Conveniently, the new, sustainable business theory, which integrates sustainability throughout its business model, pushes a company into the realm of disruptive innovation and thereby potentially into huge market gains.

Obviously, companies won’t reach zero emissions or 100% circularity by tomorrow. But they can measure the right things in their transition to circularity. Measuring the sustainability of the entire life cycle of an electronics product will help you achieve disruptive innovation, because it gives you hints where you will not only improve efficiency, but where you can wipe the board clean and fulfil the same needs for the end user, with drastically reduced negative outcomes in the social, economic and environmental spheres.

Circularity does not mean that your company, independently, embodies the entirety of a closed loop. Circularity means your company takes responsibility for its own loop, but its sourcing of secondary materials can take place on open platforms or via industrial symbiosis platforms. The idea is that if you create waste, for you it is waste, but for others it might be a much more valuable resource. By the same token, others might create secondary high quality materials that you need in an easier way than if you tried to create it from your own products. In other words, your product doesn’t necessarily have to be the source for your own upstream material input. Rather, you can move in the direction of a symbiotic relationship with suppliers and other stakeholders, including even end consumers—the key here is that collaboration makes circularity possible.

But what does this all mean? What should you, as an electronics manufacturer or supplier do? Here are some helpful steps:

  1. Conduct a material identification and work toward establishing a material declaration for all the components of your product.
  2. Use the above material information and relevant environmental life cycle indicators to identify hotspots that matter most in terms of the sustainability impacts of your electronics product. For example, the semiconductors on your board, the material of your chassis (the outer shell or frame) or the gold plating of your connectors.
  3. Ask yourself how you can influence the above identified hotspots? For example, by reusing the semiconductors, by enabling reuse through modular or disassembly-friendly design, by making the chassis from secondary materials or enabling a closed-loop material recycling for the gold in the connectors.
  4. Design for product use by ensuring that the product is designed for the most efficient and optimized life duration, including repairability and upgradeability.
  5. Design the end-of-life of the product so that it is modularized to enable reusability and focus on material combinations to allow the maximum level of material recyclability for metals and polymers.

In actualizing a sustainable strategy in electronics, you are not only reducing your risk and guaranteeing a license to operate into the next decade, but also you are one giant step closer to moving us all toward a sustainable future in which we can survive and thrive.

Constantin Herrmann

Dr. Constantin Herrmann is a sustainability expert in strategy development for profitable sustainability, life cycle thinking, ecodesign, energy efficiency, carbon footprinting and life cycle assessment at Sphera. He has been working in this field with a focus on electronics since 1997 and became team lead for metals, manufacturing, electronics and automotive starting in 2015. He holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.

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