By Jonas Allen
Have you ever seen one of those signs in your office encouraging you to recycle electronics? It exists for good reason: In 2014 alone, 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste was shipped to developing countries, posing an immense risk to environmental and human health. Electronics are evolving at a blistering pace, and device lifespans are shortening. Combine those with an exponential increase in global demand, and it can seem impossible to reverse the trend.
Fortunately, experts from around the world are already thinking holistically about these issues, and working to develop innovative solutions. Those experts will gather in September at the Emerging Green Conference to discuss ways to ensure that electronics are key contributors to the circular economy, rather than prime examples of how not to design a product ecosystem.
From material sourcing and production to recovery and recycling, stakeholders in the electronics space embraced the concept of a circular economy years before it was fashionable. Recycling gets most of the attention, in part because it’s a tangible activity in which we can all engage.
“Properly recycling all old and unwanted items here in the United States is crucially important for so many reasons,” says John Shegerian, chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI). “Our digital security, our environment and the reliability of the new devices we purchase – all rest in the balance of us recycling the right way.”
Mr. Shegerian is right. Yet well before companies like ERI and Arrow recycle those devices, well before end-users approach that recycling sign in the office, manufacturers make hundreds of choices that play a critical role in a product’s environmental performance. If users of electronics are to be true advocates for a circular economy, it’s time to take note of those decisions and engage in the conversation. After all, the outcome affects us all.
Recovering precious metals and critical minerals ensures those resources will be there for future generations. Reducing water use during manufacturing can alleviate the strain on drought-ravaged regions. Designing for energy efficiency saves end-users money, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions improves overall air quality and can help stave off global warming impacts. The greening of electronics touches every point in the supply chain, and it involves every entity that plays a role in the lifecycle of an electronic device.
At the Green Electronics Council, we understand that different organizations have different priorities – environmental stewardship, resource conservation, financial savings and technological innovation, to name a few. We engage with all of these groups, because all of us share an ultimate goal: to improve the sustainability of an industry that’s so critical to our everyday lives.
For example, consider your mobile phone. It’s probably on your desk or in your hand at this very moment. Every day, U.S. consumers dispose of enough cell phones to cover 50 football fields. The good news? Manufacturers, NGOs and major wireless carriers have already shown great desire to collaborate on an environmental standard that establishes a benchmark for more sustainable mobile phones.
“Precisely because the volume of [the mobile phone] market has true potential to drive huge positive impact in the environmental space, environmental standards against which to evaluate purchases of these devices are critical,” says Donald Mayer, global sales and business development manager at UL Environment.
But why create a standard? Why develop an environmental rating system like EPEAT? Because environmental standards developed by a diverse group of stakeholders give manufacturers and brands a map for sustainable development and provide consumers confidence in those environmental claims.
“Although there is an emerging ambition to produce and consume greener electronics, vague, misleading and even falsified claims have clouded the picture,” says Fallight Xu, the global head of green solutions at TÜV Rheinland. “Third-party verification of environmental claims provides a clear, accurate, relevant and robust message and enhances the movement’s credibility.”
These industry leaders and others will, in September, explore the critical next steps to have electronics cement their role in a circular economy.
We invite anyone with an interest in the greening of electronics to join us for the Emerging Green Conference to hear from experts in the field, share best practices, address emerging issues and productively push each other to do more. The discussions at Emerging Green will help shape the global efforts to create a healthier planet, one in which electronics are key contributors to that outcome.
Image credit: Flickr/Long Road Photography
Jonas Allen is Director of Marketing for the Green Electronics Council.