How Closed Loop Manufacturing Addresses E-Waste

The iPhone 12 is coming out this week, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want it, even though sitting on my desk, 6 inches away from my laptop, is my never-used-to-its-full-potential 11 Pro (I haven’t made the great American found-footage film, but there’s still a chance, right?).

But such is the nature of new technology, and the habits of those of us who love it. Whether or not we need the newest shiny thing (and we most often do not), the lure of the gleaming, white box and the swooping closeups is too much to resist. That’s not to say this is just an Apple issue; that’s just what we happen to like. (And buy with startling frequency.)

There are 24,000 different Android devices, and at least 2.5 billion active. And if you look at the replacement-frequency averages around the globe, people swap their smartphones for new ones about every 18 months.

And when the old is discarded, it becomes waste. And it is waste that is drowning us.

Cruise Ships and Copper

According to the UN’s Global e-Waste Monitor report, in 2019 we generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste. That amount is expected to double in just the next 16 years. It’s hard to visualize that sort of scale, so the report gives us this handy comparison: 53.6 MT is the equivalent of about 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2.

Only 17% of that waste was recycled, which is a shamefully small amount. That means we’re not taking back into the loop these precious, natural materials like platinum, gold, copper, and silver. Those materials, carved from an earth already depleted, sit unused in landfills while more are mined.

That part isn’t something we as consumers can control directly; none of us have the ability to extract the tungsten from last year’s iPhone. But we can put pressure on manufacturers to improve the availability and efficiency of electronics recycling.

And we can put pressure on legislators, too. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition is doing both.

Response and Responsibility

There are a few companies taking this as seriously as they should, and one of the most notable is Apple. They have announced a commitment to be 100% carbon neutral by 2030. That includes their supply chain.

By 2030, every Apple device sold will have a net zero climate impact.
And net zero is exactly where we need to be if we want out children and our children’s children to have air to breathe.
Tim Cook said:

“Businesses have a profound opportunity to help build a more sustainable future, one born of our common concern for the planet we share. … Climate action can be the foundation for a new era of innovative potential, job creation, and durable economic growth. With our commitment to carbon neutrality, we hope to be a ripple in the pond that creates a much larger change.”

If the giants move, we’ll all feel it.

According to Closed Loop Partners, 37 major, multinational companies have committed to switching to recycled packaging in the next 10 years.

Better, a dozen startups in verticals from tires to jeans are implementing completely closed-loop systems from day one.

Give Me More

Product iteration cycles are getting shorter and shorter because technology is evolving at a crazy pace. Consumers, in turn, are demanding newer, better machines faster than ever before. Like me with my irrational desire for an iPhone 12.

It’s hard to balance the awareness of impact with the sort of visceral “want“ we’ve been conditioned to feel, living in a time and a place of such staggering variety there are 34 kinds of Pringles (I looked it up) and $9,000 toilets that… well, I don’t know what they do because I was too blinded by fury to notice.

Unbroken Circle

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about climate change and the responsibility we in tech (and we all) have to address it. And it isn’t the first time I’ve struggled with a product launch.

It won’t be the last.

But, like masks and disinformation, it‘s the new normal. We have to think about it. And research shows that if the consumer-goods industry shifted to closed-loop manufacturing, carbon dioxide emissions would reduce by a pretty staggering 48% in just 9 years.

Being responsible doesn’t mean not having…stuff. It means thinking about where the discarded devices go. And it means the onus is not only on consumers, but on manufacturers to create products in a way that surprises and delights consumers, but preserves the natural world.

It’s the only one we’ve got, and no new model is on the way.

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