01-07-2020 | By Robin Mitchell
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive effect on the global economy with supply chains struggling, and a massive increase in remote technology usage. Will the pandemic change how we view electronics, and what role will recycled electronics play in the future?
The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world with global lockdowns, tanking economies, and a sudden change to everyday life. Offices full of employees are now empty, shops have locked their doors, and the vast majority of the population are confined to their homes. However, just because lockdowns are in force doesn’t mean that the economy stops; those who can work from home are doing so in the millions. Stocks are still being traded, companies are still designing equipment, and factories continue to manufacture goods. But while many aspects of business still carry on, others are beginning to struggle. One area in particular that has hit the world is supply chains with a global shortage on key parts. Back in January 2020, the majority of the world was unaware of the coronavirus, but manufacturers reliant on China noticed long delays on components as a result of the Chinese government extending the Chinese New Year holiday as a result of COVID-19.
But, the shortage of components, and their backorder times was only amplified when global lockdowns began. It would not be unreasonable to assume that this was caused by factories closing down, but the reason was actually as a result of remote working. With people working from home instead of offices, the demand for IT equipment rose dramatically. For example, the US saw sales for monitors double, while laptops, mice, and keyboards all rose by 10%. COVID-19 demonstrates how vulnerable supply chains can be to external forces such as lockdowns and demand. But the pandemic also demonstrates the importance of recycled hardware to both customers and manufacturers.
The amount of e-waste that is produced globally is astonishing, approximately 50 million tons, which can be visualised as 1,000 laptops thrown away per second, or 10,559 phones per second, assuming each phone is 150g. While consumers generally look to replacing their ageing hardware with the latest tech, global consumerism is seeing laptops replaced in as few as 3 years which can be argued to be inappropriate. By this statistic, a laptop from 2017 would no longer be considered usable by 2020 standards. However, typical technology dating from 2017 has specs capable for modern-day use with the Dell XPS 2017 being an example. So, the question is, why do consumers continue to purchase new equipment as opposed to refurbished equipment? There are several answers to these with the most common being a general fear of the lifetime on the product, or the inability to obtain a reasonable warranty. Refurbished equipment also carries a stigma of being inferior to newer products as well as having something inherently wrong with it. However, this may begin to change thanks to the increasing pressure on manufacturers due to global supply chain shortages.
One company in the Netherlands, Aliter Networks, are specialists in reusing IT hardware and it is their belief that the COVID-19 pandemic may be a catalyst for widespread deployment of refurbished hardware. The company is the first IT company to promote a circular economic model earning it the B-Corp certification. Their business, since 2009, have reused over 150,000 IT products including routers, switches, and cables with a net result of 310,000 KG of e-waste being saved from landfills. Upon receiving used networking equipment, the company first inspects the products for cosmetic damage. From there, it is repaired and repainted. The next stage in the products recycling is having extra accessories being added while also being remarketed. According to Zimin Chen, many IT products that are thrown away still have up to 15 years of working life before requiring a replacement whether it be due to parts wearing down or technology moving far enough ahead that the product is no long able to handle modern requirements.
It is a common issue that modern electronics quickly becomes become obsolete as technology changes yearly. A smartphone developed today will suddenly become irrelevant after three years of technological changes such as increased RAM, processing speed, and security features. Hardware of the future may need to start considering future upgrades as data rates or processing power increase. One technology that allows for such forward-thinking is FPGAs; a hardware chip that offers on-the-fly hardware customisation on the interconnection level. Assuming that FPGAs become cheaper and more powerful, future circuits could be mostly found in the digital realm with FPGAs providing hardware with the possibility to stay relevant for longer.