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Circular economy 'reduces cost and risk in electronics market'

Growing markets for second-hand electronics and reused components can bring economic benefits to manufacturers, according to a report from the Green Alliance.

The cross-party thinktank says this approach is “the best way of retaining value” due to the dramatic rise in the cost of raw materials and the economic benefits of minimising expensive chip fabrication.

Electronic devices that are up to five years old can be recovered profitably by either reselling once-premium models to emerging markets such as India or by disassembling devices for parts.

With collection and repair costs taken into account, WRAP estimates the value of the UK markets for two- to three-year-old laptops and tablets to be £720m and £90m, respectively.

Standardising the size, shape and connectivity of components would allow for the easy reuse of carbon-intensive elements such as integrated circuits.

Device recycling and reuse is seen as an increasingly attractive proposition for minimising regulatory risk as policy makers increasingly transfer the costs of the associated social and environmental impacts to retailers and manufacturers.

According to the UK’s Centre for Remanufacturing and Reuse, “remanufacturing is at its most successful when it is most hidden, due to consumer perceptions about the reliability of remanufactured goods”.

The global market for used smartphones is expected to rise significantly “from 53 million units to 257 million between 2013 and 2018”, according to the report. It is estimated that the used market will contribute to 8% of new sales by 2018.

Dustin Benton, author of the report, said: “If companies can make reuse easier, they can boost sales and cut environmental impact.”

Other findings in the report, ‘A circular economy for smart devices’, which also looks at the Indian and US markets, include:

  • Using cloud services to minimise the cost of hardware while maintaining a high-value experience
  • Elongating the useful lifespan of a device through software updates can reduce the environmental impact by up to 85%; “a device that lasts longer spreads its manufacturing impacts over a longer time period”
  • To maximise the value and environmental benefits of reuse, used devices should be retrieved “as early as possible” from consumers

Differences between the US and UK electronics recycling markets

  • The use of lower-cost hardware supplemented with cloud services is not as practical in the North American market due to sparser population densities and less developed mobile infrastructures
  • The US has a laptop penetration rate of 81% in comparison with 63% in the UK. However, tablet penetration is greater in the UK

Differences between the Indian and UK electronics recycling markets

  • Parts’ harvesting and remanufacture is only viable to US and UK markets by exporting to emerging economies. India is realising these benefits domestically due to hardware standardisation and lower wages
  • The high popularity of reusing devices from developed economies allows for older, premium models from the US and UK to be sold to Indian markets

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