CE in Electronics Industry: Adding the “Green” in Mobile Phones.

Electronic waste or e-waste is considered to be under the category of hazardous solid waste in the world, which is usually intensified by illegal trading and informal recycling. With the possibility of being refurbished, recycled or resold, but rather huge quantities of e-waste ends up in landfills having negative consequences on human health and the environment.

The “Doughnut”: The green ring represents a sweet-spot where our socio-economic systems should be placed, such that they respect (external) planetary boundaries, and fulfil (internal) societal needs.

Out of all the electronic devices, mobile phones are considered to be the most widely used device, globally. In 2019, 15.2 billion mobile phones were manufactured in the world out of which 282.9 million mobile phones were sold in India. In today’s world, mobile phones are considered not only as a source of communication but even for other routine activities such as online banking, transport, social networking and tracking fitness activities through downloaded applications.

A mobile phone is known to contain over 60 different metals, present in very small quantities. Amongst all the metals used in a mobile phone ‘rare earth metals’ plays a rather crucial role. Demand for more mobile phones increases mining activities and procurement for other substances needed for their production having an adverse effect on the number of metals available on earth. There are a finite amount of each of these metals and due to higher consumption rate some of them have already entered the list of “endangered metals”. We need to realize that almost all the parts of a mobile phone can be recycled, leaving very little go-to waste.

But what are the reasons behind the changing mobile phones by consumers? Studies have shown that there are more cultural reasons than a simple malfunction of a mobile device. Cultural expectations of owning the latest model of the mobile device or to have the latest software are considered as huge reasons for the replacement of a smartphone, followed by the reason of damage of the existing one. Thus, due to constant changes in technology and consumer demands, the devices hardly persist for longer with most of the people.

There is a potential to reuse the metals or other unused resources through circular economy approaches. There are improvements that need to be made in recycling existing material and researching alternatives of metals for the production of mobile devices. Hence, it is the responsibility of the companies producing mobile devices to develop infrastructure for recycling in emerging markets.

Developing countries such as China, India and Nigeria, have huge informal markets where mobile phones are either repaired and sold, and parts of a device is reused in another appliance. While developed countries, recently adopted the idea of reselling mobile devices as second-hand products. Earlier, developed countries used to export mobile phones to the developing countries for resale. However, in the late 2000s, the UK, Germany and the U.S. started to develop markets for selling mobile devices as second-hand realizing that the “smartphones” have a potential to last longer even when resold.

In the Netherlands, the concept of the circular economy is always high in the agenda where smart product design is adopted aiming to reduce the environmental consequences. One such company, named, Fairphone runs on the principle of responsible manufacturing for the planet and its people. Creating a positive impact by using approaches, such as lifecycle assessment of each phone’s model helps to increase the lifespan of the manufactured mobile devices and, reducing e-waste through recycling methods – Fairphone is setting a perfect example for adopting CE in the electronics industry and making an impact on six SDGs.

Fig 1. Fairphone (Fairphone.com; Guvendijk, 2014)

In India, where there is an ever-increasing demand for cheap and used models; ‘reuse’ component takes place efficiently than devices just being stuck in the drawers, unused for years. Due to high levels of inequality of wealth, there is more demand for low-end smartphones by Indian manufacturers. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the total number of mobile users in India has reached to be 1026 million in 2018. About 40% of the mobile users in India, replace their phones in less than a year out of which most of the phones are discarded. Discarding of these mobile phones adds to the major chunk of e-waste annually in the country. Most of the e-waste is handled by the informal sector, wherein, they dismantle the products without sophisticated machinery and proper knowledge. This causes serious harm to human lives and the environment as they burn the parts of the devices that are not reusable in open grounds – adding toxicity in the air and the ground.

With the current rise of awareness of the harm mobile phones as e-waste are causing to the environment various initiative is taken up by the citizens of India. There are several new ventures aimed at collecting and promoting efficient management of e-waste in India. Some of these starts-up are Cashify, EcoCentric, ENSYDE, BinBag and Attero. By following the concept of sustainability, they are helping in reducing the negative harm being caused to the environment and human health.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is considered to be an important tool for supporting decision making for sustainable development. It evaluates the potential impact of the entire cycle of the product starting from the materials used, the process involved in manufacturing and the final product. LCA can be conducted not only for a device that has to be newly manufactured but also for an existing product to know about its potential of reusing or refurbishing.

Another way to lower the environmental impact of mobile devices is to adopt the approach of making a product last longer, as did by Fairphone. This approach helps in minimizing the carbon footprint of the devices. While chips and power supply are considered as the biggest source of carbon; batteries and casing have lower carbon impact, hence, can be easily swapped in the device. The products that are considered to have higher carbon impact should be kept in use for the longest time to lower the negative impact on the environment. Opting for circular business models in the phone industry, like the Nordic countries, helps in optimising the value of mobile phones and to make them last longer (Fig. 2). Building consumer awareness on their role of e-waste disposal through a legal framework, along with other stricter policy actions will be another imperative step for adopting CE in India.

Fig 2. Green Business Model in the Phone Industry (Watson, et al., 2017)

In the business model, the first model is the design phase for durability and upgradability of the phone. The second model provides support for old mobile phones through the provision of spare parts, while the third model looks into the provision of repair services for these mobile phones. Fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh models represent redistributing phones from customer to customer, customer to second-hand seller, customer to retailers. Lastly, the model gives a psychological suggestion i.e. selling of mobile phone accessories which helps in giving a new look to the phone; thus extending the lifetime of a phone.

As our desire for mobile phones grows, so the impact on the environment increases. Responsible manufacturing is an essential component of CE, in this case, finding alternatives to not mix the parts of the phone, so that upon reusing the parts it is easier to extract the reusable components. Availability of reliable data, efficient recycling infrastructure, product take-back schemes for consumers, partnerships with environmental organizations, changes in regulatory frameworks, and subsidiary benefits are the initial necessary steps required to adopt CE in electricals industry in India. After all, better collaboration and communications amongst the municipality, retailers and manufacturers, academic and research institutes, and the citizens can help in collecting and maintaining e-waste of mobile phones which further can be reused, recycled and remanufactured; thus lowering the carbon footprint.

About the Author

Nehmat Singh (LinkedIn) is a geographer and urbanist with interest areas in an urban environment, ecosystem services and sustainability. She pursued her master's in urban management and development from IHS, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Along with being an urban enthusiast, she is constantly trying to improve her baking skills.


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