In truth, I could not have chosen a more tumultuous final year as Chairman of the BIR E-Scrap Committee. As 2020 dawned, our sector’s thoughts were occupied mainly by ever-tightening regulatory controls and the impact of trade disputes on the all-important Chinese market. But then COVID arrived to dominate the concerns of every business in the world.
Like so many others, the e-scrap sector was badly affected by the pandemic – most notably, perhaps, the widespread supply issues resulting from retail sector closures and the suspension of many scrap dealer operations. On top of this, the oil slump in the early months of 2020 forced down the prices of prime plastics and thereby undermined the economics of recycling the plastic component of e-waste, with selling prices for some pellets falling below the costs of processing and creating liquidity – and even survival – issues for some processors.
At our eForum in June last year, we acknowledged that the pandemic had served to make technology even more central to our daily lives, such as by helping us to keep in touch with friends and family during lockdown and by enabling businesses to continue to function through facilitating a huge increase in home-working. However, there was little evidence in 2020 of any deepening appreciation of the pivotal role played by the recycling sector in the technology management chain.
Indeed, recent changes to the Basel Convention have only added to our problems. Entering force from January 1 2021, the new rules affecting transboundary shipments of plastics recovered from electronics have been implemented in different ways around the world, leading to a level of confusion in the marketplace that has meant yet more time and money lost for many companies already under severe financial and operational pressure because of the pandemic.
Is this how to promote a circular economy or to spark a “green” industrial rebound from the negative impacts of COVID? As was stated by a couple of my esteemed BIR E-Scrap Committee board members during our webinar in October last year, legislative over-reach can affect legitimate trade in materials and therefore hinder circularity rather than promoting it.
At that same webinar, the BIR International Environment Council’s Chairman Olivier François of Galloo made a presentation highlighting the sophistication of industrial-scale processes required to recover high-quality plastics from waste electrical and electronic equipment and other sources. He also enlightened us about technology developed to segregate plastics containing hazardous brominated flame retardants from all other plastic streams. His video and supporting comments re-emphasized the problems faced by recycling practitioners when they are not consulted at a product’s design stage. Equally, and more positively, the presentation underscored the amazing adaptability and innovation that exist within the recycling industry’s ranks when faced with practical challenges. When recyclers apply their immense experience and expertise, solutions to technical problems are nearly always found – even if this often implies considerable cost.
That October webinar also provided me with an opportunity to look back on some of the key interactions and achievements of the BIR E-Scrap Committee since I became its first Chairman back in 2013, including the fostering of closer contacts with producers in order to encourage a greener, more recycling-friendly approach to product design.
Other key facets of our work on the Committee have included examining potential new business opportunities such as data destruction, as well as building the sector’s statistical database, notably through the launch in 2018 of its in-depth study entitled “Statistics on the national arisings of e-scrap and the movement of e-scrap between countries”. The research team behind the report confirmed that global arisings of e-scrap were likely to continue to record strong growth over the years to 2025. This serves to underline, once again, the importance that needs to be accorded to recycling and to the recycling industry.
In closing, I would like to convey my best wishes to my successor as Chairman of the BIR E-Scrap Committee. Hopefully in a year from now, he will be able to report that 2021 was more settled and positive for our sector than was 2020.
For most people, electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, tablets and laptops have become an essential part of their everyday lives. Worldwide, there is barely a corner of human activity which electronics have failed to penetrate, with an estimated 4.5 billion people now using the Internet, for example. Every year, a large proportion of these consumers buy new, updated equipment in a bid to keep pace with the latest technology trends.
The reuse, repair, refurbishment and eventual recycling of electrical and electronic equipment are not new activities. The repair of electrical and electronic equipment was a common activity for small businesses throughout most of the 20th century; however, manufacturers built in obsolescence in the 1990s and onwards, leading to a decline in the repairability of goods and in the number of repair shops. However, the public’s desire for longer-lasting, quality products is providing renewed impetus to refurbishment and repair, and as a result a better use of resources.
While cookers, refrigerators, freezers and air-conditioning units can last many years, consumer electronics become obsolete or unwanted often within two or three years of their purchase. The global mountain of e-scrap is expected to continue growing at more than 3% per year, according to BIR-commissioned research.
Recyclers have always found value in the metals contained in electrical and electronic equipment. However, recycling would be further facilitated if designs were to take full account of the ultimate recyclability of a product; some manufacturers have made great strides in this direction - partly in response to legislative and marketing pressure - but there is scope for further progress and for greater co-operation between product designers and recyclers.
IN-DEPTH BIR STUDY
As part of its remit to examine the potential for greater recycling, BIR’s E-Scrap Committee commissioned a study into both national arisings and transboundary movements of e-scrap. Based on real data and on an extrapolation of figures from some 180 countries around the world, this revealed that global generation of e-scrap is expected to soar from 41.2 million tonnes in 2016 to almost 54 million tonnes by the year 2025, with the fastest growth projected for the Asia-Pacific region where generation is anticipated to surge from 3.6 kg per inhabitant to 5 kg over the same nine-year period. By contrast, growth is thought likely to be significantly slower in the mainly saturated markets of North America and Europe.