The circular economy of your smartphone: the entrepreneurs giving new lives to electronic waste

Discarded electronic devices are a growing problem with a significant environmental impact. In order to tackle this issue, users and companies must promote reuse and start recycling. Some entrepreneurs are making this easier – their projects promote circularity to make technology more sustainable.

Gold, silver, copper, silicone, aluminium, tin, lithium… the list goes on. We barely even think about it, but the smartphones in our hands contain numerous chemical elements. Within a few short years, these valuable materials are often left to languish in the bottom of a drawer. And it’s not just mobiles, because many other devices are discarded – every year the world generates 53.6 million tonnes of electronic waste, which equates to 7.3 kilos per person. This figure will rise to 74 million tonnes by 2030, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor.

In the European Union, about 40% of this waste is recycled. Meanwhile, in Latin America 97% of it is not properly managed, despite the fact that the recovery of these materials could be a business worth $1.7 billion per year (around €1.5 billion). “These items of waste have a significant environmental impact if they are not properly managed”, states Laura Alonso, General Manager at European Recycling Platform (ERP) España, a waste management system for electrical and electronic equipment and batteries. “Recycling them helps prevent the overexploitation of natural resources, reduces our carbon footprint and lessens pollution”, she notes.

A UN report indicates that inadequate electronic waste recycling practices, such as those of landfill sites in emerging countries, heavily pollute water, air and soil. Furthermore, the incorrect dismantling of these objects exposes workers to substances that are harmful to human health, according to CSIC (the Spanish National Research Council).

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To address this huge challenge, BBVA Open Innovation guides you through some key points on the proper management of electronic devices that entrepreneurs should know, and we’ll meet some of the experts who are giving them a second lease of life.

Your computer is not electronic waste

The first recommendation of all those who were interviewed is to follow the principle that the best waste is the kind that is never generated. In this vein, in 2020 the European Union adopted the Circular Economy Action Plan, which includes measures to curb the planned obsolescence of technological products, prioritise eco-design and promote the right to repair.  It is essentially about disseminating manuals and repair guarantees with conventional tools. At the same time, in Latin America the Circular Economy Coalition has been created to explore initiatives in this field.

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Beyond advocating for damaged appliances to be repaired, a process that it is hoped will become increasingly simple, companies that need devices with other features should give preference to reusing old ones. One challenge for Alonso is the “treasure effect”, which means that we give old devices like smartphones an economic value that they no longer have and we keep them in case they are needed in future. Raising awareness of the environmental and social importance of recovery is therefore essential.

There are two main ways to reuse – donating equipment to those who need it and narrowing the digital divide or selling items to other companies. This is the basis of the refurbishing market in which companies like MercadoIT work. They buy network equipment, servers, laptops and mobiles from large companies and sell or lease them to others. “The cost of accessing quality equipment is reduced and proven technology is made available,” says Jaume López, co-founder and business development director at MercadoIT.

 

"Technology and sustainability are two sectors that have to grow"

In addition to device reconditioning, which includes data wiping, diagnostics, and repair, the company offers maintenance to extend the life of devices and proprietary warranties. “We work between two sectors, technology and sustainability, which have to grow”, López predicts.

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Recycling to recover treasures

When an electronic item is discarded, it’s time to recycle it. In Spain, users can leave their waste at household appliance stores and a wide network of  waste collection points. Where companies are concerned, Laura Alonso, manager at ERP España, recommends that they use the same channels for small volumes, provided that the relevant municipality allows it. Alternatively they should request that the companies supplying their new equipment collect any old items.

ERP is a collective system of increased producer responsibility (SCRAP), and not-for-profit entities made up of manufacturers channel the management in Spain. In essence, once it has been picked up from collection points, the waste is separated by type, is decontaminated to remove harmful substances and is then treated at special plants. “The most interesting materials in computers and laptops are precious metals and rare earths, but extracting and separating them is tricky – it’s expensive and requires advanced processes”, explains Alonso. The aforementioned right to repair could be an advantage, says the expert: “If devices are designed to facilitate dismantling, then separation at the recycling plant becomes easier”.

"Recycling is a source of job creation"

An example of green and social entrepreneurship in this area is La Hormiga Verde in Extremadura, Spain. At this special work centre, almost all of the 35 employees have a disability. “We collect electronic waste from institutions, schools, businesses and waste collection points, and we have our own collection network”, says manager and founder Ignacio García. As well as treating the waste, from which they recover almost all of the materials to then be sold, they innovate by making furniture from the plastics extracted from things like CDs. “Recycling is a source of job creation”, confirms García, who is already planning to expand to other regions.

The rise of the electric car, a new challenge

Beyond the vehicles themselves, the batteries and accumulators have their own management path to follow. This waste is becoming increasingly important because of the major increase in demand for lithium batteries, primarily due to the electric car boom. In fact, the European Union intends to promote their manufacture in the region and to establish requirements for them to contain a minimum amount of recycled materials and to promote the associated circular economy.

This is what BeePlanet Factory does – they reuse electric car batteries to create energy storage systems for residential, commercial and industrial applications. Among other initiatives, alongside Iberdrola they have set up charging points for these vehicles powered by batteries from others. Each of them is made from a second-hand shipping container, which houses the used batteries from 14 electric vehicles. These batteries act as a storage system to give four vehicles 100 kWh for two hours, and by doing so they act as a back-up to conventional charging stations.

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“We understood that the challenge of transport sustainability needed to be addressed from a disruptive perspective,” explains Jon Asín, co-founder and CEO of BeePlanet. Combining technologies is their main strength. To be more specific, they use hardware to turn the batteries into a single solution for storage, data analytics and machine learning for raw material selection and equipment monitoring, as well as control electronics in order to achieve “smart, personalised energy management”.

To complete the cycle of reducing, reusing and recycling electronic devices, innovation to improve these three steps and raising awareness of their importance are key elements. The first grain of sand is in the palm of our hands – instead of relegating your old smartphone to the back of a drawer, you could use it for longer or let it live on in other people’s pockets and devices.

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