Global players waking to $57 billion e-waste opportunity

Last year, consumers across the world threw away $57 billion worth of e-waste. Companies have started to wise up the golden opportunity presented to them.

e-waste Recycling critical materials

In 2019, around 54 million metric tonnes of e-waste were produced globally.

Electronic waste, more commonly known as ‘e-waste’, primarily consists of electronic gadgets such as tablets, smartphones, TV’s, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and air conditioners. Considering that these items are often discarded by customers after a couple of years, when new models hit the market, the proliferation of e-waste should come as no surprise. Currently, e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, trumping even plastic waste.

Yet much of it remains unrecycled. In 2018, of 50 million metric tonnes of global e-waste, only 20% was collected, recycled and documented. 80% of generated e-waste remained uncollected for recycling.

This represents a missed opportunity as e-waste is more than just a global hazard- aside from toxins, it contains precious metals and useful raw materials such as gold, silver, copper and platinum. In 2020, the worth of generated e-waste was estimated to be $57 billion, a sum greater than the annual GDP of some countries.

The extended possibilities of generating revenue coupled with the fragility of the existing electronic supply chain and worries over possible resource shortages has driven recent manufacturer interest in electronic circular management.

As such, this week, investment firm Closed Loop Partners made a significant investment in ERI, the largest IT and recycling firm in the US. The strategic partnership is aimed at expanding ERI’s waste management and processing capacities. (Where last year the recycling firm handled 118 million pounds worth of e-waste, it’s on track to handle 130 million pounds this year.)

Martin Aares, managing director of Closed Loop’s private equity platform, said: “There is a huge market in being able to divert these materials from landfills, and in being able to extend the asset life of products or the individual components within”.

The big picture

As manufacturers seek to lessen their ecological footprints, mining key electric components for raw materials becomes more important than ever. Electronic waste is a valuable resource for renewable energy generation, serving its own, unique purpose in green technologies such as wind turbines, photovoltaics, batteries, fuel cells, and hybrid and electrical vehicles.

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

The industry has already started making concerted efforts in order to tackle the described resource problem. A group of organisations, ranging from manufacturers and technology service providers such as Accenture, Cisco, Dell Technologies, Google and Microsoft came together as of March 2021 in order to create the Circular Electronics Partnership, an alliance bent on defining and tracing e-waste as well as proposing sustainable business solutions to the handling of electronic devices.

Acting on the global e-waste problem whilst ensuring a ready supply of critical raw materials will require the collective efforts of governments and businesses. In the context of increasing globalization, cross-sectoral implementation needs to, for instance agree on universal terminology when describing options and processes around handling e-waste.

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