Sustainability has been a buzzword across many industries for the last few years. But with global unrecycled electronic waste, known as ‘e-waste’, reaching over 347 million metric tonnes in 2023, there is no denying there needs to be a significant shift in attitude to protect the planet.

Thanks to recent developments in electric and hybrid vehicles, smart homes and renewable energy, practices in the electronics industry are developing with sustainable manufacturing high on the agenda.

Conquering e-waste means sustainable manufacturing must ensure future generations keep waste, resource inefficiencies and pollution at the top of their list of things to tackle.

A circular economy works to achieve just that…

So, what is a circular economy, and why should the electronics industry be making the switch?

What does it mean for the electronics industry?

We are more dependent on devices than ever before. Our lives are full of smartphones, laptops, speakers, TVs, wearable devices, battery packs and chargers — even though these items are typically made of durable materials such as plastics and metals, they are often used for a relatively short time.

Currently, the electronics sector follows a linear ‘take, make and dispose’ plan, meaning raw materials are collected and transformed into products that are used until they are eventually discarded as waste.

The way the industry currently disposes of electronic products means much of the finite energy and resources used are wasted, generating vast amounts of toxic chemicals in the process.

A circular economy approach seeks to cut waste and resource demands by sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling materials and products for as long as possible — handling resources more responsibly.

Electronics manufacturers carry the weight of e-waste with every product. How we manage resources, make and use products and what we do with the materials afterwards needs to shift to overcome environmental challenges.

What are the benefits?

Overconsumption and e-waste threaten life on Earth, with estimates suggesting we will need two planets’ resources by 2030. As a result, sustainability is no longer considered an extraneous detail or optional luxury. Now, it is a fundamental economic and societal priority.

The electronics industry itself is responsible for a large portion of global emissions — with recent findings showing that greenhouse gas emissions from electronic devices and their associated electronic waste increased by 53% between 2014 and 2020, including 580 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 alone. But the UK government is committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, meaning companies worldwide need to consider more sustainable manufacturing and investment processes.

Plus, a recent specialised industrial sector report found that from an economic perspective, moving towards a more circular approach could increase productivity annually by 3% in the UK, generate a further £10 billion gross value added (GVA) and create more than 200,00 jobs by 2030.

The report also stated that machinery producers could save up to 60% of material costs by refurbishing machines and reusing electronic components.

Can we close the loop?

Reaching a circular economy will be less than straightforward, but upwards of 70% of consumers would pay an additional 5% for a green product. So, if performance standards remained high across the board, businesses could maintain their targets even with tighter environmental regulations.

Circularity can be particularly challenging in the electronics industry, where supply chains span continents, carbon footprints are large and products are complex with short lives. For a more sustainable process, supply chains should focus on cutting carbon emissions, creating efficiency and ensuring fair treatment of labour.

As electronic products typically involve many specialised parts and widely distributed operations, consumers may have to compromise on cost. But until supply chains are more eco-friendly, there are many ways the electronics sector can move to a more circular business model.

What can be done?

There are several methods original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can deploy to reuse, share, repair and reprocess materials and maximise resource efficiency. For example, they may offer electronics as a service, where customers pay per use of appliances like washing machines, lease electronic devices or provide subscription services for consumer electronics.

For component manufacturers, the issues presented by e-waste must be considered at every stage of the manufacturing process. Currently, just 17% of global e-waste is documented to be collected and properly recycled each year, highlighting the need for significant improvement in this area.

New products must be designed with materials suitable for reuse, durability and safe recycling, whilst waste from previous electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) should be appropriately disposed of or recycled.

Now is the opportunity for manufacturers to positively contribute to society and minimise potential adverse environmental impacts, improve their profitability levels and carve out a competitive advantage. So, what are you doing to close the loop?

EC Electronics is a sustainable electronics manufacturer committed to protecting the environment through fulfilling our compliance obligations, preventing pollution and managing all waste. Learn more about our sustainability goals via our website or contact us at 01256 461894 for more information.