At ACE Recycling, we are committed to a circular economy. It is our goal to keep as much out of landfills as possible. This goal is two-fold: First, it helps protect our local environment and preserve the integrity of our land, water, and air for generations to come. Second, it allows us to keep working electronics in circulation at fair and equitable prices to ensure access to technology for all. We understand that the concept of a circular economy may be new to some. This article aims to explain what a circular economy is and why this model is valuable and essential.
Our Current Economic Model: Linear Economy
We are used to a linear economy (or waste model). We buy it, use it and throw it away. These are the steps that consumers see. There are two steps before buying it that we generally are oblivious to. The actual model is: Take, Make, Buy, Use, Throw Away. We take a closer look at the environmental impacts of each of these linear steps below.
We take resources from Earth; in the case of electronics, we are taking minerals from Earth through mining. “During 2020, more than 100 billion tonnes of raw materials were extracted from the earth – the most ever,” says Otto De Bont, CEO of Renewi, a waste-management company operating mainly in the UK and Benelux. Most of the raw materials that go into our electronics are mine in areas of the world that are politically unstable. Mining destroys ecosystems and is also used as a significant source of financing to perpetuate the conflict. Many terrorist organizations, armies, and rebel groups force local populations into unsafe mines to produce the most profit possible. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is also politically unstable and has been the scene of many humanitarian crimes over the years. The DRC contains 2/3 of the world’s cobalt. Various groups operating in the DRC exploit the value of cobalt to finance the fighting.
The goal of these groups is to make as much money as possible at any cost. Consequently, 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. Below you can see that the main locations of the mines coincides with the most fighting. The mines are a valuable resource that must be protected and worked to reap the wealth they hold.
“Conflict minerals,” defined by the US legislation, currently include tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold, all metals collectively referred to as 3TG minerals. The internationally recognized Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published the Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas. This document classifies all minerals as conflict, not just 3TG. 3TG minerals are essential in manufacturing various 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 that cause congenital disabilities and breathing difficulties. The political and ethnic dynamics of the DRC have caused horrific outbreaks of violence through years of armed conflict. This instability affected the price of cobalt during the First and Second Congo Wars in the nineties. During this time, access to diamond mines and other valuable resources helped to finance genocide and also enriched the fighters themselves.
Making new electronics (and all consumer goods) requires energy and natural resource inputs that produce waste and strip the Earth. Manufacturing has substantial adverse environmental effects, including water use, the input of toxins, and the output of carbon. Most importantly, however, we have a raw material shortage. The minerals used to create our products will disappear.
Secondary to making the product is moving the merchandise to sell it. In today’s global economy, most consumer goods travel the world to reach the consumer. Buying local reduces the input of carbon from transportation and is an essential part of sustainability. Besides the carbon output through shipping, the fuel that powers the movement of goods is finite, just as the materials that go into the goods are. In other words, the oil trapped in Earth’s crust is all we have, and we are quickly going through what we have. There is a massive gap in oil supply and demand. In 2020 the gap was 226 million tonnes. The oil needed to create and distribute consumer goods will not meet the demand. The graph below shows oil supply vs. demand.
Additionally, as our population shifts to more urban living, this demand will only increase. According to the World Bank publication, Commodity Outlook, published in October 2021, “Urban centers have significant ecological impacts. They account for around 70 percent of CO2 emissions, as well as causing significant air and water pollution due to the concentration of people living within them (Moran et al. 2018)”. As long as the trend toward urban living continues, demand for oil and other commodities will increase.
While the issue of not having enough supply to fulfill demand has far-reaching consequences for humanity, we must also consider the consequences to the environment. Oil extraction has the same adverse effects as mining and is also used to finance nefarious deeds. The more significant issue with oil and natural gas (and other fossil fuels) is that burning it releases carbon into the atmosphere. This carbon would otherwise remain locked in storage under the Earth as it has for millions of years. Releasing carbon has a domino effect on the balance of the atmosphere. Carbon traps the heat from the sun that would usually bounce back out to space. That trapped heat warms the surface of Earth. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are rising 100 times faster than they have in the last million years. While Earth has been warm like this before, humans were not present. The effect of this warming Earth will be felt most intensely by us.
USE & THROW AWAY: The (Electronic) Waste Problem
Lastly, the time of use for most products, especially electronics, has shortened considerably over the past 30 years. Moore’s law states that processing power doubles every two years, meaning that many existing components are quickly underperforming compared with the latest arrivals on the market. Technology’s fast-paced advancement, coupled with manufacturers intentionally making upgrading nearly impossible, leads to electronic waste as the world’s most significant growing waste stream. We created all this great technology without considering what would happen when we didn’t want it anymore.
We have discussed the environmental effects of electronic waste in-depth in many articles. Electronics contain toxins, such as heavy metals and flame retardants that leak into our land and water. Also, they contain valuable minerals, such a rare Earth metals, that must be mined but are also scarce. Barely 30% of our electronic waste is recycled correctly, with most of it ending up in a landfill. Here it pollutes the water, land, and air for centuries because it is non-bio-degradable (it does not decay).
Besides the environmental aspect, one should also consider the gap in technology that limits many people’s access to the modern-day tools our devices offer. We assume all people have access to the internet and a smartphone or computer. However, this is not true. With new technology coming in at higher and higher price points, many people are priced-out of technology. It is simply illogical to throw away a perfectly working laptop when someone would benefit from it. Most people cite data security concerns as their number one reason for replacing old tech instead of donating or re-selling it. As technology has gotten better and better, so too can erase it. The data wiping software of today can ensure data is “permanently destroyed as to make any type of forensic data recovery impossible.”
What is a Circular Economy?
In a circular economy or model, all components of an item are kept in circulation as long as possible. The circular economy proposes the life of a product to a cycle, not a straight line. In a circular economy, the life cycle of a product looks like this: Collect Resources, Make, Distribute, Upcycle, Reuse, and Repair, Redistribute. In a circular economy, recycling is the last resort. This model has already begun to take hold in the fashion industry.
Additionally, there are many examples of thriving circular economies worldwide, both past and present. One of the most interesting is that of Edo Japan. Forced to adopt the circular model, Japan forged a thriving and independent nation based on reuse, repair, and modularity, reversing the forests’ over-exploitation that made them embrace the model. It only fell when the British came in the late eight-teen hundreds to colonize the region.
The Circularity of Nature
The natural world is systemic and circular innately. Therefore, the circular economic model is more closely resembles the natural order of things. Think of the life cycle of a tree. A seed falls to the ground. There, it nestles in soil that has formed over millions of years through erosion and decay. It pulls the nutrients from the soil into itself and uses them to build, repair, and power itself. As the tree grows, using the recycled nutrients from the Earth, it loses its leaves, which fall to the ground. The nutrients locked in the leaves are put back into the soil for use by another seed. When the tree dies, the nutrients in the tree enter this same cycle. Nothing in nature goes to waste; everything gets reused. We call this the Circle of Life (And it moves us all). Somewhere down the line, humans have pulled our products away from this natural process and into the unnatural linear process.
How do we achieve a circular economy?
The circular economy looks to minimize waste and resource extraction while increasing use. Reducing waste and extraction can be accomplished by re-thinking product design to make repair and upgrade easy and expanding the product’s life span overall. We must begin to dematerialize by reusing materials that are already in our electronics. 7% of the world’s gold is locked in our technology. Renewable energy sources must power this step. Lastly, there must be a change from product-based to service-based consumerism. We look at each one in more depth below.
Modularity is an essential product design feature in a circular economy. Products should be designed for disassembly and upgrade. If one part is not working, that part should be removed and repaired or upgraded without negatively affecting the product’s overall performance. Computers, generally, are easy to upgrade. Instead of soldering RAM to the motherboard, we can pop out RAM and replace it with higher speeds. Apple is widely known for its lack of upgradability, but they are slowly getting better.
Increasing the life expectancy of products is vital for a circular economy. Many electronics seem made to break, and often it is cheaper to buy a new one than to repair the broken one. This trend is especially true for TVs and printers. Poor quality products like these result in a never-ending cycle of buying and throwing away. Putting pressure on companies to produce products that will last for the long haul is essential.
Lastly, a circular economy sees a world that moves from products to services. In our world, “ownership” is a goal attached to our view of success and wealth. However, not everything must be owned. There are other ways to get people what they need. We are starting to see this happen with ride-sharing services, but we have a long way to go.
Sustainability is an Attitude
At ACE Recycling, sustainability is the way we think. Most electronics that come through our door work are business-grade and are less than ten years old. They are brought to us partly because most corporate policies recommend replacing technology every 2-3 years, working or not. But mostly because people discard their working devices for the latest, most fantastic laptop for sale or iPhone. At ACE Recycling, we have several goals:
- We want to prevent working, usable devices, and parts from being discarded because it isn’t sustainable or economically viable.
- We believe technology is a tool that should be accessible to all, but we understand that it is not.
- We want to be part of, and help you be part of, a circular economy because we believe it is sustainable and economically viable.
If you look at the circular model, ACE Recycling fits into the Upcycle, Reuse, Repair, and Redistribute sections of the circle. Upcycling a product involves moving it “up” the process by enhancing it. Upcycling is achieved by upgrading the RAM and hard drive and updating the operating system to Windows 10. Every laptop goes through a 7-point inspection. We repair any issues found in the examination. We breathe new life into electronics that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.
It is important to us that we are putting products out there that are useful and productive. We strive to meet the needs of our community by actively protecting our environment and making technology available. But we know that reliable, quality products must back our quest to do so, and we know our name is attached to what we sell. We assure you that if you buy from ACE Recycling, we will stand by our product. We honestly believe we can make a difference, and we invite you to join us in doing so.
Get in the Loop
There are many ways you can participate in a circular model—one of the first steps in learning more about the benefits of a circular economy. A great place to start learning is the Get in the Loop podcast series. The podcast is a comprehensive look at how we can swing to a circular economy. There are some simple choices you can make to be more circular than linear in your daily life. Here are some things you can do today:
Reduce – Buy less. Consider sharing, trading, or upcycling instead of buying new. Think about the longevity of products and if a particular product has multiple uses. Buy used, upcycled, and refurbished instead of new.
Reuse – Aim for multiple-use products. Make sure that what you do buy can be reused. Our linear economy is grounded on single-use – buy, use, throw away. If you are a company, you want your product to be disposable. Your model relies on people buying again and again. Luckily, this is starting to change. If you can purchase a more prolonged use version of a product, you should spend the extra few dollars. 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 out of our landfills. Check-in with your city to understand what can go in your city recycling can.
Upcycle – Instead of replacing the whole, how can you replace/repair a part? Can you turn it into something completely different? Can someone else use it in a completely different way? You can find great upcycling ideas at UpcycleThat.com. There are a lot of creative people out there with fantastic, out-of-the-box ideas! Before you get rid of it, see what it can become with a simple Google search.
Repair – As mentioned in the article, there are still products made virtually impossible to repair. TVs and printers are just a few examples of this. ACE Recycling accepts both for responsible recycling. However, as mindsets change, many things are getting easier to repair. Laptops and PCs are great examples of this. Gone are the days of complicated case removal and soldered RAM. There are very few issues that make a laptop dead in the water. We have IT experts on staff that would be happy to have a look. We can also upgrade the RAM, hard drive, and operating system on your laptop.
Reinvent – What else can it be? This one is FUN! Get creative, think outside the box and have fun with it. We chalkboard painted an old monitor, which was super easy! You can take apart a keyboard and use the letters. Here are 13 creative and practical uses for an old cell phone. There are millions of ideas online. Tap into the creativity of others with a simple Google search!