Today, more than 7 billion people, meaning that 90% of the world's population, use smartphones or phones with technological features. Nowadays, electronic products are an indispensable part of daily life, and of course this does not only apply to mobile phones. Many people own more than one electronic product and the ownership rate is increasing day by day in direct proportion to the accessibility of the products.
Electronic products are highly dependent on resource utilisation due to the valuable materials they contain and are therefore more valuable than many products. This makes electronic products much more important due to their environmental and social impact within the value chain. If we look at waste generation, which is the main output of the linear economy, we can say that globally, more than 57 million tonnes of electronic products became waste in 2021 alone. In other words, in just 2021, we created a pile of electronic waste heavier than the Great Wall of China. The comparison to the Great Wall of China shows how critical the situation is, but let's also look at the place of electronic waste in the fight against the climate crisis.
Research shows that by 2040, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector will account for 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, electronic products that we use only for communication and information will cause a significant portion of global carbon emissions. Furthermore, we shouldn’t overlook the extra carbon emissions caused by millions of electronic products that are not used for communication or information purposes.
Today, the impact of technological developments on societies does not happen gradually over decades as it used to. Digitalisation, which has become a fundamental part of our daily lives much faster than it should have been with the Covid-19 pandemic, causes us to need more and more electronics every day. This situation, of course, necessitates the definition of the ‘circular electronic product’ in terms of the transition to circular economy. The ‘Circular electronics system map’ report prepared by the Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP), which has partners such as the World Economic Forum, Accenture and WBCSD, will accompany our discussion on the definition of circular electronics in this week's article. Since the report was published exactly one week ago, it will allow us to conduct our discussion in an up-to-date manner.
What is a circular electronic product?
Globally, electronic waste is worth over $57 billion. This makes it all the more important that the process of transition into circular economy in the electronics sector starts urgently. However, as we have mentioned in our previous articles, the transition to circular economy requires a different roadmap for each sector. While transformation in relatively more niche sectors is easier, this transformation process is extremely difficult for electronic products that are used globally by the majority of the world's population. The difficulty of the transformation process is also related to the innovative perspective of circular economy, which has no limits because it is based on innovation. For this reason, the definition of ‘circular product’, is also being drawn for electronic products.
Characteristics of a circular electronic product
According to the report, an electronic product must fulfil these criteria to be circular:
➡️ Circular resources: The product must be manufactured using confirmed, certified circular sources. Here, circular resources refer to resources that are re-utilized through reuse, renewal or upcycling/recycling techniques. The raw materials and other parts to be used in the products must consist entirely of recycled and reusable materials.
Since circular economy also optimises resource management, it is important to define resources correctly. Not only the parts that make up the products, but also the energy used for processes such as the procurement, manufacturing and assembly of these parts must be completely from sustainable sources.
➡️ Circular design: The product must be designed to ensure the reusability of the use process and materials. This is actually a criterion that describes the use of circular economy principles from the design stage of the product. In linear economy, products or services are designed without considering the use process or post-use processes. The fact that nobody cares about what happens to the product after it is used is the main problem of the current economic structure.
In circular economy, the life cycle of the product should be considered in detail, from how it will be used while it is still in the design phase (including alternative scenarios) to how the resources in it will be recovered after its use. Therefore, design has a very important place in circular economy. However, it is noteworthy that design should not be limited to product design.
Design within circular economy also encompasses a total system design. This means not only innovative product design, but also a complete overhaul of all processes along the value chain (raw material procurement, logistics, production, utilisation, waste management, etc.). In other words, it is not enough to design a ‘sustainable product’ within circular economy. In a circular system, all relevant stakeholders should be involved in the design processes of the product before, during and after use.
➡️ Complete recovery: The product must have an optimised mode of use and be completely recyclable after use. Although this criterion is similar to the second one, the differing point here is ensuring that the planning in the design phase is properly carried out. In other words, in the second criterion, we need to design the product in accordance with the principles of circular economy, while when we come to the third criterion, all of these principles must be applicable and the product must be fully recovered after the end of its use. This is also possible by designing not only the product but also the system as a whole in accordance with the principles of circular economy.
In order to maximise the value of the product and the resources used, it is critical to determine all use and post-use processes in advance. However, of course, new processes should also be implemented for the recovery of products in post-use processes - one of the most difficult processes to implement in circular economy is the process of taking products back from users and re-incorporating them into the cycle - if necessary.
Finally, the reclaimed products need to be fully recycled with the appropriate R-strategies (repair, reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling).
These three criteria are critically important. As consumers, we should pay attention to the purchasing process. Consumers' preference for alternatives suitable for circular economy, especially regarding electronics, which is the most involved after the food sector, is of course very important for the correct execution of the transformation process.
Of course, it would not be a very good idea to try to confirm whether an electronic product is suitable to circular economy only by looking at the three main criteria above. Today, many different alternative raw materials and therefore many different suppliers are used for the production of an electronic product. This makes it difficult to reach a clear conclusion, especially in terms of understanding whether the raw materials or materials that are repeatedly taken into the cycle, which we call circular resources, actually go through a process in accordance with the principles of circular economy. But here, too, digital labelling that describes in detail the entire value chain of the products that have entered our lives with material passports and the block chain technology, which has emerged in recent years and will soon be used primarily in European Union countries, comes into play.
🔎 Circular Economy 101’s take: Although the process of transition to circular economy is managed differently for each sector, similar roadmaps or product definitions are gradually starting to appear. While a clear framework for circular economy may diminish its innovative character, it is not reasonable to expect humanity to make a complete transition to a completely uncertain system.
Even though it is contrary to the basic structure of circular economy to define any process related to circular economy by setting clear limitations under normal conditions, certain standards or criteria need to be introduced in order to ensure that the transformation process is carried out flawlessly. However, as we state in every issue, it is among the most important duties of everyone to question the accuracy of the information they receive, to understand circular economy correctly, to accept the fact that it is not only a waste management system, and to spread it to our environment.