June 2017

Electronics and the growing trend towards reuse and the circular economy

By Patty Osterberg, SERI Education & Outreach Director

and Photographer Verena Radulovic

If you have old electronic devices collecting dust at home or at the office, you’re not alone.  Faster, smarter, more feature rich devices are released with ever growing frequency, replacing their older model counterparts.  This raises an important question: what to do with the world’s estimated 50 million tons of unwanted electronics that are replaced every year?

The first answer that may come to mind is to recycle, yet the latest EPA Facts and Figures Report finds that the recycling rate in the U.S. for small consumer electronics such as computers, printers and mobile devices is only 40 percent.1  A 2013 policy brief from the United Nations International Environmental Technology Centre estimates global recycling rates for e-waste to be even less at just 15 to 20 percent.2   Instead of being recycled, many devices are improperly disposed of and end up in landfills, which has caused significant harm to human health and the environment — and also squanders the valuable resources contained in the discarded equipment.  A United Nations University report estimates the value of the recoverable materials in discarded electronics was $52 billion dollars in 2014 alone.3   And that doesn’t include the untapped value of unwanted electronic devices that are accumulating in the homes of consumers and businesses.

The new movement towards a “circular economy” calls for a more responsible and advantageous way to manage the products and materials we use.  In the case of used electronics, reuse takes center stage because it has the most environmental and economic benefits. When older devices and components reach the point where they no longer have viable reuse potential, they are recycled to recover the valuable materials they contain.

Proponents of the circular economy hope it will replace the “take-make-throw” economy that has been the norm for much of the past century.  Life Magazine published an article in 1955 entitled Throwaway Living: Disposable Items cut down household chores.” 4   Capturing the prevailing attitude of the day, it pictured a family surrounded by frozen food containers, paper plates and napkins, single use duck decoys, and an assortment of other disposable products that were portrayed as conveniences made possible because of progress and prosperity.  The article went on to say that by using the disposable items pictured, families could save 40 hours of cleaning time.

Fortunately, attitudes have evolved and reuse and recycling are increasingly the norm.  When it comes to electronics, however, current reuse and recycling efforts have not kept pace with the technology boom of the past two decades.  Close to 8 billion mobile devices were in use worldwide as of 2015 according to tech giant Cisco,5 and other electronic device categories such as desktop PCs, monitors and printers are not even included in that number.  This presents a challenge – what to do with older devices that have been replaced; and it presents an opportunity – bridging the “digital divide” by getting used devices that are tested and working in the hands of people who need them.

If you’re wondering does it really matter if you let older devices accumulate in a closet or toss an old laptop or cell phone in with the trash, the answer is an emphatic yes!  And here are some of the most compelling reasons why.

Bridging the Digital Divide  

Devices considered obsolete in one market, may be in great demand in another market.  In fact, the sale of affordable, used electronic devices in emerging markets has been largely responsible for bridging the digital divide in many economically disadvantaged regions of the world.  According to the ITU (the United Nations special agency for information and communication technologies), 95% of the world’s population now lives in an area covered by a mobile-cellular network.  Mobile broad band networks (3G or above) now reach 84% of the global population – including 67% of the rural population.6   With internet coverage almost universally available, the demand for affordable mobile devices is great, as is the challenge of getting tested and working used devices in the hands of people who need them.

During her recent trip to Lima, Peru, photographer Verena Radulovic spoke to skilled repair technicans and shop owners in the city’s thriving electronics repair and reuse market.


Daniel, owner of a 3 x 12 foot used TV shop caters to the needs of his customers. “Many people come in from the rural areas, and even as far away as the jungle, to buy older model TVs with CRTs because they hold up better with fluctuating electrical current — especially when thunderstorms impact the grid.”  In his shop, twenty inch TVs sell for $40 USD (compared to $400 for new TVs being sold at two large electronic specialty stores nearby).  Radulovic observed two sales being made during the twenty minutes she was in the shop.

“They don’t make spare parts!” lamented Victor, owner of a repair shop in Lima.  He and other repair shop owners harvest spare parts from devices that can no longer be repaired.  By creating their own spare parts supply, they are able to repair older model devices still in use by their customers.

The availability of affordable older model devices has made it financially possible for hundreds of millions of people to connect to the internet and gain unprecedented access to information, healthcare, education, banking and other financial services.  Although the digital divide is narrowing, McKinsey Global Institute7a estimates that two billion people and 200 million micro, small and midsize businesses in emerging markets are still without access to credit and other financial services.  Delivering those services by mobile phone, projects McKinsey Global, could spur growth that would add $3.7 trillion to the GDP of emerging economies by 2025.7b

Preserving Resources

Manufacturing new electronic products requires a tremendous amount of energy and raw materials.  Almost 70% of the total energy used during the lifecycle of a laptop is used during its manufacturing.8   Manufacturing also increases greenhouse gas emissions and the need to mine raw materials – both of which have a significant negative impact on the environment and increase the environmental footprint of electronics.    With so much invested in the production, lengthening the lifespan of electronic products only makes sense.  The good news is that repaired and refurbished electronics can perform as new if loaded with updated software and drivers, and the lifespan of can easily be doubled, even tripled.

When devices and components can no longer be reused, the valuable materials contained in end-of-life electronics can be recovered.  This preserves limited supplies of natural resources and reduces the environmental impact of mining raw materials.

Report on the Environmental Benefits of Recycling
Prepared by Imperial College London 


Energy Savings from Recycling vs. Mining Carbon Footprint Reduction
from Recycling vs. Mining
Lead 98% 99%
Aluminum 95% 92%
Nickel 90% 90%
Copper 63% 65%


 Protecting People and the Environment

Electronic devices contain materials such as lead and mercury that can pose a serious risk to air, ground water and human health if not safely managed.  Irresponsible (and often illegal) landfilling, incineration, and unsafe processing of used and end-of-life electronics can result in significant harm to human health and the environment.  As global electronics use continues to rise and devices are replaced with greater frequency, the need to direct used electronic products to safe and sustainable reuse and recycling channels grows more urgent.

Evolution Towards a Circular Economy

The circular economy is based on retaining the maximum value of products throughout their lifecycle.  Here’s an example of how that works.  The maximum value of a laptop is when it is being used for its intended purpose – as a laptop.  But when the owner upgrades to a new device, there are a variety of possible outcomes for the older model that has been replaced.  Not all outcomes, however, are equally beneficial – environmentally or economically.

  • Discarded in trash or landfill → any value from reuse or recovery of the materials contained in the laptop is wasted, and the device now poses a risk to human health and the environment.
  • Stashed out of sight, out of mind in a closet or corner → the value of the laptop remains untapped and diminishes over time.
  • Recycled, shredded and further processed to recover the materials contained in the device → the value of materials is recovered, but the greater value of reuse is sacrificed.
  • Components harvested for use in other devices → more value recovered from parts and components than from recycling.
  • Laptop repaired and reused → the maximum value of the computer is recovered, most beneficial for the environment.  (It’s important to note that bringing unwanted devices to a recycler or refurbisher as soon as they are no longer in use, greatly increases their value and reuse potential.)

Extending the life of devices and recovering maximum value is increasingly important as the world’s population is expected to increase from 7.4 billion to 9.5 billion by 205010 –  which will fuel the demand for electronics and other goods, and further deplete the planet’s limited resources.   Our current model of consumption is not sustainable, which is why moving towards a circular economy that emphasizes good stewardship through reuse and materials recovery is necessary.

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, has been a vocal champion of reuse.  He reports a resurgence of local electronics repair shops that has been sparked by open source repair manuals made available by iFixit.  “Thousands of locally owned and operated smartphone repair shops have popped up in the last few years,” says Wiens. “The electronics repair industry in the U.S. supports 60,000 small businesses, employs 175,000 people, and generates $21 billion in annual revenue.”  Wiens also notes, “These are skilled, well-paying jobs, that will always be in demand because at some point, all electronic devices will eventually break and there will always be a need for technicians who can fix them.”

A growing number of corporations and organizations have signed on to Circular Economy 100,11 a program of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.   There is also an important role that consumers and small business can play.  You can make a difference by helping to put reusable products in the hands of those who need them, and ensure valuable resources are recovered from end-of-life electronics.   Bringing your unwanted electronic devices to a responsible recycler who will make sure they are refurbished or recycled in a safe and sustainable way is an easy way for you to help people, preserve resources and protect the environment.  And as a bonus…you’ll have a little more room in your closet.