14-11-2020 | By Sam Brown
With growing pressure on environmental regulations and legislation, many are looking at e-waste and how it can be reduced. What problems does e-waste cause, what are product passports, and how could they help both the environment and consumers?
Electronic waste, or e-waste for short, is the waste produced by the electronics industry after electronic products are consumed and no longer wanted. The problems caused by e-waste are vast and complex, involving political, social, and environmental problems, and the increasing consumption of electronic products only makes matters worse.
To start, e-waste has major environmental implications stretching from the initial production of the electronic product to its eventual disposal. While many materials used to make electronics, such as copper and silicon, are widely available in the earth’s crust, some rare minerals are required such as lanthanum, cerium, and europium. The extraction of such material can often lead to massive ecological damage with large amounts of deforestation, polluted land, and unusable water reservoirs. However, once the product has been used and thrown into a landfill, toxic chemicals and compounds in the product (such as lead and cadmium), can leak out and pollute the landfill site as well as underwater sources.
Social problems caused by e-waste can be readily seen in less developed areas around the world, including China, Africa, and South America. Unfortunately, countries that have large quantities of rare minerals also happen to be in those less-developed nations, which can lead to slavery, population displacement, and negative health consequences as a result of mining. The ability to exploit populations also sees mining fund conflicts and wars. Thus such minerals are often referred to as conflict-materials (gold and diamonds are two classic examples of such minerals). The waste produced by electronic products will often be shipped to developing countries in exchange for money or the promise to recycle the goods. However, these products are often destined straight to a landfill, or dismantled by workers with little regard to the health of those workers who can be potentially exposed to harmful compounds.
Overall, e-waste can cause large scale environmental damage by leaking harmful compounds into the ground and water supplies, fuel large scale consumerism which further worsens environmental effects from the obtaining of resources, and impact the lives of millions in less developed areas of the world.
What is a product passport?
Recently, there have been calls for products to utilise “Product Passports” in an attempt to create a circular economy. Unlike a bill of materials (BOM), a product passport is a document that includes all materials used in a product, components, and recycling procedures. This allows for a product to be more easily re-used as components are listed (thus allowing for easy repair), as well as making products easier to recycle as recyclers not only understand how to recycle the product properly but identify valuable materials that can go on to help produces other products.
While product passports are currently more of a concept than a standardised practised, there is growing pressure from repairers and environmental activists for manufactures to start development of product passports and then have these available on public databases. Some in the industry have expressed concern that such passports will allow competitors to either get a better understanding of their competition or copy the design, thus impacting intellectual property rights. While those who support product passports have stated that these worries are unfounded as competitors will always take apart and reverse engineer competitor products regardless of publicly available documents, this does not consider that the cost to reverse engineer would be significantly reduced.
One term that is often associated with product passports is “circular economy”, and this is critical in how product passports can help the environment. A circular economy is one which loops on itself whereby products that are manufactured are eventually disposed of. Still, the disposal process dismantles the products as much as it can for the materials to be reused in future products; in other words, recycle. A circular economy provides many environmental benefits as the need for extra raw minerals from the environment is significantly diminished, and the amount of e-waste being committed to landfills is minimised.
However, before the concept of a circular economy is celebrated and cheered as the ultimate environmental solution, it should be noted that recycling products are very energy-intensive, and the impact of reducing mineral extraction could cause more social harm. To start, a circular economy may rely less on natural resource extraction, but the need to completely recycle products for reused requires large amounts of energy. If this energy is not sourced from environmentally-friendly sources (such as coal, oil, and gas), then the effects of recycling material shift the environmental damage from land and forests to the atmosphere. The second impact of a circular economy is the potential shift of revenue from developing nations which may be highly reliant on mining and mineral processing related industries for their development to continue. All developed nations have had to go through a difficult process which requires time and industrial growth. Still, the result of this is increased life expectancy, access to healthcare, better education, and a general improvement in living standards. Thus, switching to a circular economy to help the environment could see less-developed nations struggle to continue with development, and simply putting money into such nations rarely helps with development.
Overall, product passports allow for recyclers to understand how to maximise profit in recycling a product as well as how the product should be recycled. At the same time, repairers can use product passports to understand how to repair products to increase their lifespan. Keeping products out of the landfill is generally good for the environment. Still, before we switch to a circular economy, the ramifications on those who are dependent on older industries should be taken into account for.