The iPhone and iPad maker has become the latest electronics company to dip a toe in the circular economy

When Apple launched a major new programme to boost the recyclability of its devices last month, it was seen as a victory for the circular economy, the business model that seeks to turn the “take, make, dispose” model on its head.

The initiative, Apple Renew, will encourage customers to return used devices to the technology giant, where they will be stripped down to individual component parts, for reuse in new Apple products or repurposing for items such as solar panels, Apple says.

Apple is not the only big technology player to experiment with a less wasteful and more regenerative business model. LP and Google are developing modular phones whose parts can be easily replaced so the phones can be repaired and upgraded, lengthening their lifespan.

The company that has blazed the way is Fairphone, the Dutch social enterprise that was set up in 2013 with the aim of creating a smartphone that does not contain “conflict” minerals and fair labour conditions throughout its supply chain. The second version of the phone, released late last year, was one of the first modular smartphones.

Modular phones and other product designs that would allow electronic component to be reused rather than discarded are seen as one answer to the growing electronic waste (e-waste) crisis, which reached 42m tonnes in 2014. Of this less than one sixth is recovered and made available for reuse. According to the United Nations University, e-waste is both a valuable urban mine of potentially reusable resources, worth $52bn a year, and a toxic mine of substances dangerous to human and planetary health.

Miquel Ballester, Fairphone's product manager and innovation officer, says Apple’s initiative is a solid step forward. "It's good to see the industry creating incentives for customers to return their products directly to manufacturers at end-of-life," says Ballester. He adds that manufacturers are usually better placed to recycle and repurpose their own products than, say, general phone recyclers such as Mazuma Mobile and Envirofone.

Are smartphones becoming more sustainable?

But Ballester underlines that to make the electronics industry sustainable, a truly circular model is necessary, where the lifecycle of the product is extended as long as possible, and recycling is a last resort. "What is more important, we believe, is to keep products in use as much as possible and build business models and operations around them that support that longevity," he says. That means taking care of "availability of spare parts, repair documentation, alternative operating systems and everything that is in our hands, before those products make it to the recycling process".

Ballester is reluctant to claim direct credit for Apple’s Renew programme, but says: “Fairphone is playing its part by inspiring the industry with innovative alternatives and using business for good." while creating consumer demand.

There is growing consumer demand for a more sustainable economic model, says Ballester, and Europe is adding regulatory pressure. In December the European Commission published its Circular Economy Package, with targets for 65% of municipal waste and 75% of packaging waste to be recycled by 2030, tough restrictions on landfill, and other encouraging language on eco-design and electronic waste.

However, the package has had a mixed reception, with many sustainability experts saying there aren't enough measures either to reduce waste in the first place, via better design and repairability systems, or to make it easier for recycled materials to be reused as “secondary raw materials” in new products.

sustainability  recyclability  circular economy  solar panels  technology  supply chain  recycling  electronic waste 

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