Should You Rent, Not Buy, Electronics?
By Doug Johnson
Laptops, phones and tablets come out in new, flashier upgrades each year, and consumers lap them up, eager to own the latest desirable models with the most cutting-edge features. But with every upgrade, older models mount up in landfills around the world.
In 2019, we generated a record 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste, according to the Global E-waste Monitor put out by United Nations University's (UNU) — a UN research and academic institution — among other organizations. It predicts that this amount will reach 74 million tons by the end of the decade.
Apart from the sheer volume of waste piling up on trash heaps, electronics often contain toxic chemicals such as mercury and chlorofluorocarbons that can leach into the surrounding environment.
Despite growing awareness of the problem, little of this waste is being recycled.
"While consumers will often say 'Yes, of course I am in favor of recycling, and yes, I recycle,' when you actually look at behaviors, it doesn't match up with the percentages who say they would do it," said Laura Kelly, director of the Shaping Sustainable Markets group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a London-based independent research organization.
Which is why some experts are calling for a radical overhaul of electronics manufacturers' business model.
"Innovation is very much needed in order to reuse as much as possible," said Ruediger Kuehr, director of the Sustainable Cycles Program at UNU and one of the Global E-waste Monitor's authors.
Kuehr believes we need to "dematerialize" the electronics sectors – instead of buying and owning the latest tech we should lease the devices we use, with manufacturers shifting their model to providing a service instead of material goods.
Shifting Responsibility From Consumers to Manufacturers
With manufacturers maintaining ownership of their products, the burden of recycling would shift from consumers — who often don't know how best to dispose of old devices — to companies who would reuse materials and parts for new products.
In 2019, only 17.4% of e-waste — 9.3 million tons — was formally collected and recycled, according to the latest E-waste Monitor. This largely ends up with recycling facilities that operate independently of manufacturers. And because e-waste isn't their problem, the manufacturers themselves have little incentive to design products with easy disassembly and recovery of reusable materials in mind.
The new devices with space-age-smooth casings are often virtually impossible to take apart, meaning even the precious materials they contain will end up in landfills. And for manufacturers, the faster we discard and replace them, the bigger their profits.
Yet for certain products, leasing models are already proving to make good business sense. Japanese electronics company Canon, has a scheme to lease large office printers in Europe, which Kuehr cited as an example of dematerialization. Hewlett-Packard and Xerox offer similar initiatives.
When a lease ends, Canon takes back the used printer, refurbishes it for the next customer or, if it is no longer in working order, ships it to its facility in Giessen, Germany, where it is broken down to the chassis. Parts are then reused in repairing other machines. This allows the company to recover 80% of the materials by weight, according to Canon sustainability manager Andy Tomkins.
Tompkins said Canon wasn't only motivated by environmental concerns. Considering the size of the machines — and the volume of materials involved — it "makes economic sense to do this as well," he said. There are also relatively few of these printers out in circulation, making it easier for them to be recalled than, say, cellphones.
But Tompkins believes subscription models could work for smaller, more numerous devices, if consumers were ready for it. Unlike with office machines, many private customers still want to own a product. Moreover, they want to own one that is new.
It would also require manufacturers to redesign their product lines — in the same way that Canon's made-for-lease printers are made to be taken apart with maximum recovery of materials in mind — and build facilities to undertake this work.
Even then, there is a limit to the volume of materials that can be recycled. Blair Fix, a political economist and author of the book Rethinking Economic Growth Theory From a Biophysical Perspective, points out that everything degrades and nothing is perfectly recyclable. "We're always going to need materials," he said. And right now, it is often far cheaper to produce new materials — like plastics from oil — than recycle used ones.
Incentives for Change
Kelly at the IIED noted that, in many cases, corporations do adopt environmentally progressive policies on their own. One reason is that sustainability commitments can enhance their brand. But non-renewable resources are also declining.
The E-Waste Monitor estimates the value of the raw materials thrown out in old electronics in 2019 at $57 billion (€47 billion). Of this, only $10 billion worth of raw material was recovered "in an environmentally sound way." Some of this value is in rare elements such as gold and those — like cobalt — that are becoming ever scarcer because they are essential to electronics.
Forward-thinking companies that start rolling out circular strategies now could have a head start if the economics shifts in favor of recycling, Kelly says.
There is little sign of companies doing so yet, though, and Fix says dematerialization electronics might require government intervention. Regulations could oblige manufacturers to take on the costs of disposing of their products, while public money could subsidize some of manufacturers' costs for setting up their own disassembly and recycling plants.
"If producers would market it this way, it could really make a difference," Kuehr said.
Reposted with permission from DW.
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theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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