The Circular Economy: How E-Waste Recycling Helps Close the Loop

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E-waste recycling

Photo Credit: iStockPhoto/sonmez karakurt

As a digital recycling company, we are at the forefront of what incessant consumerism is doing to the economy and the planet. The world is slowly disappearing under the crushing pile of waste, most of it e-waste, and it’s sickening.

What’s worsening the situation are lethargic economic models that refuse to change. The form of capitalism that we’re currently operating under works with a very limited frame of mind: Take-make-use-discard.

It doesn’t take into account that the world’s resources are limited and we need to use them more intelligently.

One of the ways to do that is to adopt a circular economic model. What is it and how it works are the topics we will explore today.

But let’s start with a recap of the problem — e-waste challenges that we’re dealing with.

Challenges Of The E-Waste Problem

E-waste is a problem of behemoth proportions that keeps getting more alarming and complicated by the day. Some factors that cause and perpetuate the issue:

– Aggressive resource mining

The way we resource precious metals and minerals that go into the manufacture of most electric and electronic goods is reckless, irresponsible, and unsustainable.

We are emptying mine after mine to extract valuable raw metals — endangering lives and the environment in the process — and then use them with total abandon.

Most of them are only used one time when the product is first made. Once the product is sold, used, and then discarded, away goes the metal too, and all the effort it had taken to get it in the first place.

– Assumption of indefinite resources

The careless way with which we discard valuable metals like gold, copper, lithium, cobalt, etc., every time we throw away a tech gadget suggests that we think they are in indefinite supply.

They are not.

Not many people are thinking about how we’d make more electronic goods when we’d have no more lithium or cobalt to source.

– Increase in e-waste generation

Nearly 80% of all electric and electronic goods end up in landfills as waste. The problem continues to get more challenging as digital penetration deepens in various sectors of society.

– Woefully ineffective recycling

Whatever little is recycled goes through such a complex system of electronic recycling that makes the entire thing more expensive and burdensome than it should be. Lack of e-waste recycling regulation, consumer apathy, and a culture of obsolescence are all factors that contribute to the mounting e-waste issue.

– Exporting the e-waste

Most of the e-waste intended for landfills is exported to the developing world. Countries that are ill-prepared to deal with the problem that we are dumping at their doors; a problem, I must add, that they have nothing to do with in the first place.

As the UN tells us, the modern developed world has created the e-waste monster and continues to feed it. So, even though we can remove the problem from our sight and make it somebody else’s issue, it still doesn’t get resolved and continues to multiply and diversify.

So, as multifaceted as the e-waste issue is, does the circular economy have the teeth to deal with it?

What Is A Circular Economy?

Of all the creative ways experts are trying to combat the e-waste crisis, a circular economy holds the most promise.

In a circular economy, products and materials are designed for durability and recycling. Products, parts, and materials are repaired, reused, and recycled over and over again for as long as possible to extend their life and use, and to keep them in circulation.

Compared to the current linear model of the economy, the circular framework is gentle to the planet and uses resources with more care and intelligence.

A few examples of a circular economy in the context of e-waste:

  • Recovering precious metals from old electronic devices and using them for new ones.
  • Designing devices in a way that it’s easier to fix and repair them.
  • Salvaging functional components of discarded devices — screens and batteries, for example — and refurbishing them for manufacturing again.
  • Product take-back programs where manufacturers can collect old and obsolete devices from consumers so they can be recycled and not just dumped in the garbage.
  • Creating modular products where the hardware can sustain multiple software upgrades without becoming outdated in two years.

While some of this is already happening, adopting the circular economy will launch the effort on a scale.

Circular Economy Models

As per estimates by Gartner, the world is fast moving toward a circular mode of the economy where waste-generation businesses will quickly become unacceptable to consumers and governments.

The World Economic Forum talks about five models of the circular economy that are the most relevant to reducing waste. These models address different types of e-waste and highlight the advantages of starting born-circular businesses that are ready for the future.

– Circular inputs

Circular inputs are also called renewable or regenerative inputs.

Consider them the building blocks of any circular economy model. With circular inputs, a smartphone manufacturer would source its raw materials and components not from natural resources but from existing e-waste, turning waste into an asset.

On one hand, e-waste mining stops the depletion of limited resources, and on the other, it brings down costs. Since you already have convenient access to high-quality raw materials, you don’t have to spend on expensive mining, creating a more healthy cost-profit balance.

Tokyo Olympics are one of the most recent global events that showed us what e-waste mining could do when they created the Olympic medals using materials from discarded electronics.

– Product-as-a-service

A circular economy model that is routinely combined with e-waste reduction strategies is the PAAS model.

Instead of selling smartphones and other electronic devices, manufacturers would lend them to consumers for a limited time. À la goblins of the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

When businesses retain ownership of the product, they will be incentivized to create something that lasts much longer, has strong durability, is easier to repair and recycle, and has components that can be used over and over again.

The PAAS model not only potentially reduces e-waste but also strengthened secondary economic markets, like repair and maintenance shops.

With more products being created with a repair-minded focus, these secondary markets will thrive, opening up more avenues for the economy and reducing the pressure on natural resources.

– Product life extension

The linear economy benefits when newer products are created and sold. The more new stuff you make and sell, the more profit and economic activity you’ll generate.

The product life extension model acts to curb that.

By investing in products that are durable, reusable, and conveniently recyclable, markets benefit by ensuring products remain for as long in use as possible, and for as many users as possible.

Repair and maintenance services also worked toward that and improve product end-of-life.

Not only it reduces pressure on existing resources but maximizes their value by keeping them in circulation for longer.


The linear economy of today is wasteful and harmful, and it’ll soon stop working. The gap between waste and new manufacturing is getting bigger and consumers as well as governments are looking for sustainable ways to maintain the economy.

Economic experts can already see circular economy becoming mainstream in less than a decade. While it’s good news for businesses that’ll be born circular, those that need to pivot must do now.

The cost of transition will rise as time passes and if you won’t keep up the new economic models might not have a place ready for you at the table.

About The Author

Kelly Sampson is a writer, blogger, and environmental enthusiast. She has strong opinions about climate change, the dogs vs. cats debate, and Oxford commas. She has lent Hummingbird International her engaging and spirited voice and turned our blog into a great place to find valuable information about e-waste, e-waste recycling, and the ITAD industry. Explore our blog to read more of her work.

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