Although not to the same extent as in 2020, last year saw restrictions imposed at various times around the world in a bid to control the spread of Coronavirus, including directives from a number of governments that people should work from home whenever feasible. Thus, the pandemic continued to be responsible in significant measure for an increase in demand for electronics and, as a consequence, for a spurt in such equipment being returned for reuse or recycling.
This increase has come on top of the underlying uptrend in electronics demand. According to Statista, consumer spending on traditional and emerging technologies will exceed US$ 505 billion this year compared to US$ 422 billion in 2019, the year before the pandemic became a factor in most aspects of our lives.
Similarly, it has been estimated that WEEE amounted to around 57 million tonnes worldwide in 2021 and that subsequent growth will be at around 2 million tonnes per year. The most recent Global E-waste Monitor, dated 2020, projected that the volume of discarded products with a battery or plug such as computers and mobile phones will reach 74.7 million tonnes by 2030 – or almost twice the 2014 figure – thanks to higher electric and electronic equipment consumption rates, shorter lifecycles and limited repair options.
However, a competing force emerged in 2021 in the form of unprecedented disruption to global supply chains, again traceable to the pandemic. Of particular relevance to our sector, the global shortage of semiconductors had a critically adverse effect on producers’ abilities to finalize their products, resulting in lower consumption and thus reduced flows of WEEE into the reuse and recycling orbit.
The impact of wider events on our sector has also been illustrated by greater efforts among brand owners to enhance their environmental credentials under pressure from ever more environmentally aware consumers. The impetus among product manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprint has strengthened demand for secondary raw materials and significantly improved our price levels.
As we learned from Scott Newell III at our E-Scrap Committee webinar in November, high non-ferrous metals prices and increased quality requirements on imports has led to substantial investment in additional separation equipment; and fellow guest contributor Max Craipeau pointed out that many scrap plastics captured from WEEE are now selling at a premium to their virgin counterparts.
But while pro-environment factors are certainly helping to support our industry’s activities, the same cannot be said for the constraints imposed by many forms of transboundary shipment legislation. In this context, it was of particular concern towards the end of 2021 when the European Commission came forward with a proposal to revise the EU Waste Shipment Regulation in a way that would restrict movements of our industry’s materials, thereby driving down prices and undermining collection activity
While it is good to know that BIR can now plan with greater confidence for face-to-face Conventions in 2022, our webinars in 2021 were still extremely useful in that they enabled us to press the pause button on our normal working lives and to use the time-out to assess where we stand as an industry and in what direction we might be heading in future. At our May event, we had further confirmation of the ever-changing nature of e-scrap, with the average plastics share of electronic goods said to have jumped from below 20% in 2013 to nearer 30% a mere seven years later, thus requiring recycling processes to become yet more sophisticated.
In addition, guest contributor Klaus Hieronymi of the European Recycling Platform foresaw the possibility that initiatives such as the European Green Deal could lead to existing business models giving way to an extended circular economy built around repair, reuse and remanufacturing.
Also looking ahead, fellow guest Marc Affüpper of TSR Recycling GmbH & Co. KG identified the need for greater recognition of the recycling sector’s sustainability credentials; for more partnerships between the raw materials industry, manufacturers and recyclers; and also, crucially, for a more level regulatory playing field. Sad to say that this final need may prove to be little more than wishful thinking given the vast array of differing legislative approaches around the world.
For most people, electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, tablets and laptops have become an essential part of their everyday lives. Worldwide, there is barely a corner of human activity which electronics have failed to penetrate, with an estimated 4.5 billion people now using the Internet, for example. Every year, a large proportion of these consumers buy new, updated equipment in a bid to keep pace with the latest technology trends.
The reuse, repair, refurbishment and eventual recycling of electrical and electronic equipment are not new activities. The repair of electrical and electronic equipment was a common activity for small businesses throughout most of the 20th century; however, manufacturers built in obsolescence in the 1990s and onwards, leading to a decline in the repairability of goods and in the number of repair shops. However, the public’s desire for longer-lasting, quality products is providing renewed impetus to refurbishment and repair, and as a result a better use of resources.
While cookers, refrigerators, freezers and air-conditioning units can last many years, consumer electronics become obsolete or unwanted often within two or three years of their purchase. The global mountain of e-scrap is expected to continue growing at more than 3% per year, according to BIR-commissioned research.
Recyclers have always found value in the metals contained in electrical and electronic equipment. However, recycling would be further facilitated if designs were to take full account of the ultimate recyclability of a product; some manufacturers have made great strides in this direction - partly in response to legislative and marketing pressure - but there is scope for further progress and for greater co-operation between product designers and recyclers.
IN-DEPTH BIR STUDY
As part of its remit to examine the potential for greater recycling, BIR’s E-Scrap Committee commissioned a study into both national arisings and transboundary movements of e-scrap. Based on real data and on an extrapolation of figures from some 180 countries around the world, this revealed that global generation of e-scrap is expected to soar from 41.2 million tonnes in 2016 to almost 54 million tonnes by the year 2025, with the fastest growth projected for the Asia-Pacific region where generation is anticipated to surge from 3.6 kg per inhabitant to 5 kg over the same nine-year period. By contrast, growth is thought likely to be significantly slower in the mainly saturated markets of North America and Europe.