This article is sponsored by Cisco.
The COVID pandemic has made us more reliant than ever on digital connectivity and telecommunications. From handheld devices and screens, to servers, routers and wireless access points, millions of companies and families worldwide rely on electronic devices for their connectivity and communications needs.
What if the materials required to make these products came to be in short supply?
This isn’t a hypothetical question. The range of recent supply disruptions has made it clear that the world’s supply lines can be stopped at a moment’s notice, and we need to be prepared. The global shortage in semiconductors has been wreaking havoc on worldwide supply chains, and cobalt shortages are driving price hikes and bottlenecks for smart phone and electric vehicle battery manufacturing. Even mundane commodities such as toilet paper and wipes have suffered severe supply shocks in the last year.
In light of increasing global supply chain uncertainty, companies are shifting their attention toward a circular economy. The premise is simple: by extending the lifetime of products through reuse, repair and remanufacturing — and recovering important raw materials from products at the end of their useful lives — we minimize the need to extract more raw materials for new products. Cisco believes that creating a circular economy is as disruptive — in a good way — as the development of the linear economy (take, make, sell, dispose) we seek to disrupt. Massive societal benefits also stem from such a model, including less waste, a lower carbon footprint, new employment opportunities and access to products and technologies for groups that couldn’t have afforded them before.
Supply chain resilience and critical raw materials
To create many components that make up electronic products, we need specific critical raw materials. Demand for these materials is growing across a range of industries — including not only telecommunications but also the renewable energy technologies necessary for a clean energy future.
"Critical raw materials are often mined and produced in only a handful of countries, which may make them prone to trade barriers, political instability and other socio-economic risks," says James Souder, consultant at sustainability think tank, Metabolic.
A handful of these materials are classified as "conflict minerals." Risks surrounding them could be exacerbated in coming years due to climate change and other global challenges — which brings us to the importance of recovering and reusing materials already in circulation.
Designing circular products and business models
To make better use of limited resources and build resilience, Cisco and other electronics companies are embracing the circular economy, and it all starts with circular design. By 2025, all new Cisco products and packaging will incorporate circular design principles, thus helping to keep materials in use for as long as possible.
Currently, many electronics need to be broken down to their raw materials to be recycled and looped back into production. Recycling is great, but it’s only one value stream. Reuse saves more carbon and creates a higher level of value, and modularity is one way to achieve that by allowing some components and parts to be updated in existing products or reused in new ones. A good example is the Cisco IR1101 router, which has been designed in a modular fashion so that customers can swap in LTE or 5G modules when it makes sense for them, without having to replace the whole device.
Components also can be redesigned to eliminate or reduce the use of high-risk materials. Fairphone’s mapping of the material recovery pathways for its modular phone is another example of aligning product design with repair, reuse and eventual recycling.
Prioritizing product- and component-level reuse and remanufacturing means maintaining the highest embodied value of critical materials and minimizing value losses in the recycling process. This is illustrated in the Value Hill graphic (adapted below), with higher-up circular strategies, such as reuse, preserving the most value across a product’s life cycle.
In conjunction with the design of products, many companies, including Cisco, are moving toward "as-a-service" business models where instead of owning hardware, customers pay monthly for the usage of a service that includes hardware, software and maintenance.
Takeback and reuse programs are another way that companies enable circular business models. For example, Cisco is one of several companies participating in the PACE Capital Equipment Pledge announced at the World Economic Forum in 2018. As part of this coalition, Cisco committed to 100 percent product return, pledging to take back used equipment from any customer around the world at no cost.
Cross-industry collaboration is essential
In practice, the recovery of many materials used in electronics is not always straightforward, particularly for minerals used in trace amounts that do not have a high economic value. This underscores the importance of collaborating to find circular opportunities along each step of the electronics value chain, from design through remanufacturing. It also means that companies such as Cisco need to develop ecosystems that will recover, remanufacture or refurbish and redeploy those products into new marketplaces.
To stimulate such collaboration, the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) is developing an industry-wide framework for circular material movement in electronics production and e-waste recycling. This work aligns with the vision developed by the Circular Electronics Partnership, which outlines 40 actions that need to happen in the next decade for the electronics industry to achieve circularity.
Some raw materials in electronics are already being recycled — more than 17 percent of electronic waste was properly collected and recycled in 2019, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor. To increase this figure, the industry needs new tools, technologies, methods and, again, higher levels of collaboration.
Producers often view recycled materials as risky due to inconsistent supply and unknown technical performance. This uncertainty of demand for recycled materials prevents recyclers from investing in new material recovery technologies, stunting circular innovation and progress.
And even though Cisco recycles or reuses more than 99 percent of what it gets back, for complex products such as electronics, not all critical raw materials are recovered in the recycling process. Recyclers and smelters will recover what is technically and economically feasible within their processes.
Take tantalum, for example. Tantalum is recognized both as a critical raw material and conflict mineral, and is found in specific high-performance capacitors used for circuit boards and LCD screens. However, tantalum is rarely recovered in the electronics recycling process because of its low concentration in electronic components. Furthermore, many tantalum capacitors also contain silver, which will be prioritized in the metallurgical recovery process because it has a higher economic value. When mixed together in the end-processing step for silver and other precious metals, the tantalum is ultimately oxidized and lost.
Some companies are exploring ways to align product design with metal recovery processes. An important first step is increasing communication across the value chain.
At Cisco, an example of this is a recent workshop we held with our recycling partners and internal product design community. In this virtual session, the recycling team took several Cisco products apart, provided an overview of how components would be recycled and offered guidance to our engineers on how to better design for disassembly and recycling. We’re even looking at cutting-edge technologies such as bioleaching and new separation technologies.
Considering the range of initiatives already underway, the electronics industry is well positioned to lead the shift to circular value chains, but this will require radical collaboration, new technologies and the development of supply chains that feed demand and create incentives for supply.
Stakeholders across industries must work together to develop circular business models that minimize supply chain disruptions, reduce environmental and social impact, and stay ahead of shifting consumer concerns. Reaching true systems-level change will require collaboration across all levels of the supply chain, and our organization cannot accomplish this alone.
I passionately believe that the circular economy not only improves the world but also creates opportunities to access new technologies, new jobs and even entirely new economies — much in the same way the internet created entirely new ecosystems of companies doing work that never had been imagined before. My team is excited about a circular future.
Learn more about Cisco’s approach to the circular economy here.