We are used to a linear economy (or waste model). We buy it, use it and throw it away. In a circular economy or model, all components of a particular item are kept in circulation as long as possible. This is done by reusing, reinventing, repairing, and refurbishing as much as possible. In a circular economy, recycling is the last resort. In electronic recycling, precious metals are extracted from computer components, like RAM, to be reused.
The Benefits of a Circular Economy
A circular economy is a system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value at all times and waste is designed out of the system. This allows new markets to open. Instead of straight from the manufacturer to the consumer, there are several other layers introduced. Added to the loop are refurbishers, repair shops, recyclers, and metal extractors. At each level, the cost to the consumer comes down. The circular model for electronics could reduce the costs for consumers by 7% by 2030 and 14% by 2040.
Mining and Conflict
Most of the raw materials that go into our electronics come from areas of the world that are in conflict. Mining not only destroys ecosystems but is also used as a major source of financing to perpetuate the conflict. Many terrorist organizations, armies, and rebel groups force local populations into mines that are unsafe to produce the most profit possible. 2/3 of the world’s cobalt is found in one of the world’s poorest countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 10% of the mining there is done in small-scale mines, with dangerous working conditions. Some 100,000 cobalt miners in the DRC use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet, with little planning and fewer safety measures. The lack of safety precautions frequently causes injuries or death. Amnesty International has reported that child labor is widespread.
“Conflict minerals,” as defined by the US legislation, currently include the metals tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold, which are the derivatives of the minerals cassiterite, columbite-tantalite, and wolframite, respectively (3TG). The internationally recognized OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas has a broader scope and covers all minerals, not only 3TG. These minerals are essential in the manufacture of a variety of devices, including mobile phones, laptops, and computers.
On top of inadvertently financing genocide and other atrocities, the local environments around the mines are being devastated. Consequently, so are the people. Mining pollutes the vicinity and exposes local wildlife and indigenous communities to toxic metals thought to cause birth defects and breathing difficulties. The political and ethnic dynamics of the region have in the past caused horrific outbreaks of violence and years of armed conflict and displaced populations. This instability affected the price of cobalt and also created perverse incentives for the combatants in the First and Second Congo Wars to prolong the fighting since access to diamond mines and other valuable resources helped to finance their military goals—which frequently amounted to genocide—and also enriched the fighters themselves.
Mining and the Circular Economy
In a circular economy already made electronics are mine. Significantly reducing our need to mine the earth. In addition to reducing the impact on the people of the region and hopefully, cutting off a money stream for those who wish to harm them this is a much better option for the environment. Recycling metals, verse mining for more, is 2 to 10 times more energy efficient. 1.46 billion smartphones were sold in 2017, if just the raw materials were recycled, they could be worth $11,5 billion. 7% of the world’s gold is in our electronic devices. There is 100 times more gold in a ton of mobile devices than in a ton of gold ore.
Get in the Loop
There are many ways you can participate in a circular model. Here are some ideas:
Reduce – buy less, but also, buy what can be reused. Our linear economy is based on single-use – buy, use, throw away. The linear model is not sustainable.
Reuse – aim for multiple-use products. Simple steps, like buying reusable straws, bags, and water bottles make a difference.
Recycle – ACE Recycling has recycling bins EVERYWHERE! We are constantly looking for partnerships to offer more options for recycling more materials. We welcome these partnerships because our goal is to keep as much as we can out of our landfill.
Refurbish – our IT experts can take two non-working devices and get at least one working again! Electronics are surprisingly easy to upgrade. Most people are intimidated by opening up an electronic. WE AREN’T!!
Repair – think your laptop is a goner? It might not be – bring it to us!
Reinvent – this one is REALLY FUN! Get creative. Chalkboard paint an old monitor! check out the video below for fun ideas.