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The proliferation of e-waste, or electronic waste, has become a pressing global issue with significant environmental and health implications. E-waste refers to discarded products with a battery or plug, such as computers, mobile phones, TVs and refrigerators. Remanufacturing of electronic products, recycling of waste and green supply chain management are important aspects of circular economy principles to address the proliferation of e-waste.
According to the Global E-waste Monitor, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste in 2019, and only 17.4% of it was officially collected and recycled. Most of the e-waste we generate ends up in landfills, incinerators or informal recycling sites, posing serious risks to human health and the environment due to the toxic and hazardous substances they contain.
A circular economy is a system that aims to eliminate waste and pollution, keep products in use for longer, make better use of finite resources, and help regenerate natural systems.
By applying circular economy strategies to e-waste management, businesses can not only reduce their environmental impact but also create new opportunities for innovation, growth and social benefits.
The business perspective
A circular economy for e-waste can offer multiple advantages for businesses and society. One of them is saving costs and resources – by extending the lifespan of electronic products through repair, refurbishment, or remanufacturing, businesses can reduce the need for new materials and energy and save on production costs. For example, a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that remanufacturing mobile phones can reduce material input costs by up to 50% while helping reduce energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions.
Another benefit of a circular economy is the creation of value and revenue. By recovering valuable materials from e-waste, such as metals, plastics, or rare earth elements, businesses can create new revenue streams and increase their competitiveness. For instance, the Global E-waste Monitor estimated that the raw materials contained in the e-waste were worth about $57 billion, of which gold accounted for $20 billion.
A circular economy and green supply chain can also help retain customers and enhance brand loyalty. Offering customers more options to recycle, trade-in or buy pre-owned electronic products is a great way for businesses to improve their customer satisfaction and retention, as well as their brand image and reputation. For example, a survey by Accenture found that 83% of consumers believe it is important for companies to design products that can be recycled or reused. This survey also underlines that customers are actively looking for more environmentally friendly products.
Another advantage comes in the form of generating social and environmental benefits. By ensuring that e-waste is collected and recycled safely and responsibly, businesses can contribute to social and environmental goals, such as creating jobs, improving health and safety conditions, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preventing pollution, and protecting biodiversity. For example, the e-waste sector can generate between 60 and 140 jobs per 1,000 tons and potential revenues of up to €3.67 billion in the EU alone.
To achieve these benefits, businesses must adopt a green supply chain approach that integrates circular economy principles throughout the product lifecycle. For example, this includes designing products for durability, repairability, upgradability and recyclability, as well as relying on sustainable materials for both products and packaging.
There are many examples of businesses that have successfully implemented circular economy and green supply chain strategies for e-waste management.
IKEA, a globally renowned furniture retailer, has proactively embraced sustainability and environmental responsibility as integral components of its business strategy. While it’s widely recognized for affordable and stylish furniture, IKEA has expanded its focus to address broader environmental concerns, including reducing waste.
The company is on a journey toward sourcing only renewable or recycled materials by 2030, with a commitment to using materials that are either renewable or recycled and providing innovative solutions to prolong the life of products and materials.
Another illustrative instance can be observed in the case of the H&M Group, a multinational clothing company based in Sweden that focuses on fast-fashion clothing. In alignment with its commitment to sustainability, H&M has always offered detailed insights into the company’s strategy and performance data pertaining to sustainability endeavors. Notable achievements include using 84% recycled or sustainably sourced materials in commercial goods, a 44% reduction in plastic packaging, and progress in labor practices and community investment.
Since 2011, ATRenew has been on a mission to give a second life to all idle goods, addressing the environmental impact of e-waste by facilitating recycling and trade-in services. In 2022, we managed to reuse 18 tons of package fillers and 36,000 packaging boxes. Additionally, we have shown our commitment to green electronic waste disposal by dismantling 270,000 electronic devices in an environmentally friendly way and reducing electronic pollution by 43.2 tons.
The bottom line
The circular economy and green supply chain offer a promising way to tackle the global e-waste challenge while creating value for businesses and society. By adopting circular economy principles and practices, businesses can reduce their environmental footprint, save costs and resources, create new revenue streams, enhance customer loyalty and reputation, and generate social and environmental benefits. To achieve these outcomes, businesses must collaborate with their stakeholders, leverage technology, and innovate their business models. By doing so, they can transform e-waste from a problem into an opportunity.