Global players wake up to $ 57 billion e-waste opportunity

In 2019, approximately 54 million metric tonnes of electronic waste were produced worldwide.

Electronic waste, more commonly referred to as “e-waste”, mainly consists of electronic gadgets such as tablets, smartphones, televisions, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and air conditioners. Since these items are often thrown away by customers after a few years, when new models hit the market, the proliferation of electronic waste should come as no surprise. Currently, electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, even surpassing plastic waste.

Yet much of it remains unrecycled. In 2018, out of 50 million metric tonnes of electronic waste worldwide, only 20% was collected, recycled and documented. 80% of electronic waste generated was not collected for recycling.

This represents a missed opportunity because electronic waste is more than just a global danger – in addition to toxins, it contains precious metals and useful raw materials such as gold, silver, copper and platinum. In 2020, the value of e-waste generated was estimated at $ 57 billion, a sum greater than the annual GDP of some countries.

The extensive opportunities to generate revenue, coupled with the fragility of the existing electronic supply chain and concerns about possible resource shortages, have recently sparked manufacturers’ interest in electronic circular management.

So this week, investment firm Closed Loop Partners made a significant investment in ERI, the largest IT and recycling company in the United States. The strategic partnership aims to expand ERI’s waste management and treatment capacities. (Where the recycling company handled 118 million pounds of e-waste last year, it is on track to process 130 million pounds this year.)

Martin Aares, Managing Director of Closed Loop’s private equity platform, said: “There is a huge market to be able to divert these materials from landfills and extend the life of the products or the individual components they contain.”

As manufacturers seek to reduce their environmental footprint, extracting key electrical components for raw materials becomes more important than ever. E-waste is a valuable resource for renewable energy production, serving its own unique purpose in green technologies such as wind turbines, photovoltaics, batteries, fuel cells, and hybrid and electric vehicles.

According to the International Energy Agency, demand for critical metals is expected to explode in the coming years. The energy sector alone will increase demand for lithium and nickel to 90% and 70% respectively.

The industry has already started to make concerted efforts to tackle the resource problem described. A group of organizations, ranging from manufacturers and technology service providers such as Accenture, Cisco, Dell Technologies, Google and Microsoft came together in March 2021 to create the Circular Electronics Partnership, an alliance to define and trace electronic waste as well as to provide sustainable business solutions to the management of electronic devices.

Acting on the global problem of electronic waste while ensuring an immediate supply of critical raw materials will require the collective efforts of governments and businesses. In the context of increasing globalization, cross-sectoral implementation must, for example, agree on universal terminology when describing e-waste management options and processes.

“A circular economy is not driven by individual companies,” explains Caroline Van Brunschot, circular economy manager for the World Business Council for Development (WBCSD).

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