Tackling e-waste at end-of-life has traditionally been the only method employed to mitigate the staggering amount of e-waste ending up in landfills. But it hasn’t proven to be sufficient enough. As electronics become increasingly more disposable, the problem is only getting worse. Corey Dehmey of SERI and member of the E-Waste World Conference & Expo Advisory Board proposes a more comprehensive strategy that is the result of three decades of investigating different methodologies. In an interview with Trans-Global Events Content Manager Suzanna Hayek, he reveals new ways to tackle the issue head on.
SERI designed the Circular Electronics, Remanufacturing & ITAD track for the upcoming E-Waste World Conference & Expo taking place in Frankfurt on 28-29 June.
Let’s start out with a little bit of history behind SERI. How did SERI come about?
SERI came about as a need to continue to revise the R2 Standard for the responsible reuse and recycling of electronics, and oversee the R2 certification program.
R2 Certification is meant to recognize responsible reuse and recycling facilities, who actually handle the used electronics coming back through the reverse supply chain, from returns all the way to the recycling at the end of life. And so, the standard, seeks to create confidence in the market that the right things are being done.
This was developed initially by the US Environmental Protection Agency back in 2005. SERI was created as a non-profit to host and administer that standard, and really build the certification program.
Regarding the SERI collaboration with E-Waste World Conference & Expo, can you tell us what the sessions in the conference will be focussed on?
I’m really looking forward to the conference. We have some great sessions lined up to explore design, repair, carbon footprinting and ESG reporting. How do we gain trust in refurbished products and in repair? How do we reuse more products? What are the opportunities out there? That’s what this conference track is looking to do. Let’s look at the entire lifecycle of the products.
Historically, for 30 years we’ve looked at the hazards of e-waste and how to mitigate the pollution that can come from electronics and eliminate the dumping of this e-waste in countries around the world.
And that’s the whole recycling chain, which we still have to do, and do better. But our learning has evolved to be more than just about environmental pollution. We have to look at this holistically, how do we keep these products in use longer?
We’ve learned that the carbon footprint of electronics is mostly in the manufacturing and distribution of new electronics. In our disposable society, we are turning over electronics so fast that we can’t keep up with the recycling at the end of life.
We have to focus on how to design products for repair and reuse to keep them in service much longer. How can we improve that carbon footprint? How can we conserve our natural resources? How do we make a sustainable and circular economy for electronics?
This transition to circular requires rethinking the way we’ve been doing things, which has traditionally been only considering what to do with electronics at end-of-life. That allows us to manage e-waste, but it never gets us to preventing it in the first place. To prevent e-waste, we have to go up-stream.
In terms of manufacturers reducing their carbon footprint, how does designing for circularity help?
Brand-new thinking that we’re seeing evolve out there is carbon avoidance or what some people are terming as scope four within ESG reporting. And this involves how our decisions avoid the generation of carbon in the first place.
When we think about repair or we think about reuse of a device, what that ultimately does is it eliminates the need to manufacture a new one. And when we look at the lifecycle analysis of electronics, many of these evaluations of electronics show that up to 85% of the carbon footprint of an electronic is actually in the mining and manufacturing of a new device.
Think about it, if we replace our laptop every three years in business, that means over the course of 12 years, we have had four laptops. So, if we could extend the use by just one year to four , we’ve eliminated one laptop every 12 years. And now if you take a large business that has 50,000 employees, you’ve just saved 50,000 laptops, right?
Multiply that by the Fortune 100, by another hundred companies with 50,000 employees. I mean, that’s a ton of carbon that we could save over time just by that one simple shift of using the product longer. That’s what goes into the design and these decisions about repair and reuse, is that broader impact and that multiplier effect that we can have just by making that one little choice.
We’ve been speaking about circular design. Let’s discuss e-waste recycling. Why is it important and how has it evolved over the years?
Well, the funny thing is we used to think that the best solution was shredding. Just throw it into a big shredder and that’s the way we’ll liberate all these materials. But what we found is that actually, shredding can lose materials in the process. All those precious metals, secondary raw materials – they’re hard to recover sometimes. And so you can’t just shred it.
You have to be able to shred it and then separate it. We’ve gotten good at separating out steel, aluminium and copper, and recovering those base metals. But other metals require different processing. So sometimes shredding isn’t always the solution.
A lot of times it requires manual labour to take it apart. It requires separating the materials manually to get the best recovery. So, I think we still have to focus on how we develop the technology, methods and processes to be able to recover these materials because the focus has shifted.
It used to be just about pollution prevention. But now it’s more about how do we lower that carbon footprint? How do we protect those natural resources?
We have to think about the cycle as not just preventing pollution, but also recovering the materials. That’s the really hard thing to do right now, and that continues to evolve.
And it’s also connected to design because then the manufacturers can think about how they’re going to design it so that it’s easier to extract those materials when it comes to end of life.
Thanks very much for joining me, Corey, and for waking up so early for this interview. We look forward to seeing you in Frankfurt. Bye