More than 53 million metric tons of electronic waste were accumulated worldwide in 2019. That is equivalent to 100 times the weight of the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This is one consequence of rising consumption, the gradual digitalization of our lifestyles and the diminishing service lives of electrical appliances. But besides materials that are harmful to our health and the environment, electronic waste also contains valuable raw materials that can be sustainably reused.
Currently, only around 17 percent of the electronic waste accumulated worldwide is recycled each year. The rest is mostly either dumped at landfill sites or incinerated. Sometimes it disappears via dubious routes and is sold via intermediaries to countries where the disposal standards are very low.
There are many good reasons to minimize the amount of electronic waste and increase the recycling rate. One important aspect is the risk posed to health and the environment. Electronic waste can contain highly toxic substances. Some devices contain mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic or beryllium. Incinerating these materials instead of disposing of them properly can result in serious harm to health. We are familiar with the images of children from developing countries that burn our electronic waste in order to get to the valuable materials.
However, at the same time, electronic waste contains many valuable materials. By way of illustration, these are the quantities of valuable raw materials contained in one million cellphones: around 35 kg of gold, around 350 kg of silver, around 15 kg of palladium and around 15 kg of copper.
So it is worth using the many valuable materials found in waste to manufacture new electronic components. That reduces not only the amount of waste, but also demand for raw materials. And let us not forget that raw material extraction often has negative effects on the environment and human health. Thus, recycling also protects sensitive ecosystems, reduces the amount of energy consumed in the transportation of raw materials and prevents human rights abuses in newly industrialized countries.
As consumers, what we do with our electronic devices after utilizing them is in our own hands. However, it is at least as important that manufacturers are also aware of their responsibility. And that begins right from the design of the electronic devices. That is because the point at which the device becomes electronic waste and how the materials it contains can be recycled are determined at this early stage.
The average cell phone is used for around 18 months.
Even if such a thing as planned obsolescence, meaning devices breaking down after a short useful life, is not permitted by law, some providers even incorporate precisely this sort of thing in their strategy. Consumers then frequently think that they are buying devices at particularly favorable prices. Buying high-quality products that last longer as a result is clearly the better alternative. This is because in this case, the manufacturers focus on counteracting resource wastage by extending the useful life.
This is a crucial aspect for SMA. The quality and longevity of inverters are taken into account right from the design stage. After all, the calculation is very simple: devices that can be used for twice as long mean that only half as much electronic waste is generated.
Another important topic is reparability. Today, many products can no longer be repaired at all. This means that when they suffer even the most minor damage, entire devices often have to be thrown away.
Reparability means that companies are responsible for designing their products in such a way that they can be easily repaired and maintained. This is an important point that SMA also takes to heart. For many years, we have been taking faulty inverters back, repairing them where possible and putting them in our warehouse with replacement devices. In turn, this ensures that customers immediately receive a recycled replacement device if service is needed. In addition, SMA is increasingly offering assembly replacement on-site. This avoids the need to dispose of entire devices. Only the defective component is replaced.
If products are designed such that repairs can easily be carried out, they can also be recycled more easily after use. This is referred to as design for recycling. SMA has set itself some ambitious targets in this regard. For example, 90 percent of the components in each of our products is to be recyclable by 2025. At the same time, we are working on steadily increasing the percentage of secondary raw materials that we use in our inverters – and reducing the percentage of critical materials. After all, they are not only questionable in relation to the production and use of electronic devices. Obtaining and disposing of these materials is also problematic. They often prevent components from being recycled. This means that they conflict with our aim, which is to return as many materials as possible to the material cycle as secondary raw materials once our inverters reach the end of their useful lives.
Determining for how long we use electronic products and which products we really need is in our own hands. Recycling is important, but it is only the very last step. Up to that point, we should use the product as well and for as long as possible.
Matthias Schäpers is SMA’s Sustainability Officer and Climate Protection Ambassador for Kassel of the Hessian Ministry of the Environment
For years, there have been calls for a shift toward sustainable development in order to achieve the agreed climate targets. Scientists unanimously agree that the longer we wait, the more extreme the corrective steps will have to be. This demand is about nothing more and nothing less than what should go without saying – leaving future generations the same living conditions that we have benefited from. We are rightly demanding that government create the appropriate framework conditions for this.But does this fit in with our own behavior? We often act in exactly the opposite way, sometimes consciously, but largely unconsciously and out of habit. Our lifestyle therefore often has effects that we do not even know about.
Businesses also need to play their part and take on more responsibility. They can influence the conditions within their production areas, the supply chain and the use of their products, both during and after use. They can encourage their employees to use resources in a more sustainable way, while also making use of their employees’ potential. Many employees already consider it essential to choose a company that takes sustainable behavior seriously and promotes it.
The aim of my blog, missionN, is to provide you with valuable information and inspiring suggestions on the topic of sustainable behavior at work and at home. In doing so, I will also actively report on the commitment to sustainability at SMA.
You can find more information in the Global Waste Monitor 2020