The announcement by one of the largest global electronics producers that it is aiming to produce all of its electronic products using 100% percent renewable or recycled materials had all of the panache of a new product launch in sustainability circles. The goal, however aspirational today, is the very result that proponents of a circular economy will point to as the long-awaited outcome of extended producer responsibility programs.

Circular Economy Suppliers and “Specialty Recyclers” Needed

As a foundation of the plan, the closed loop would operate an incentive-driven take-back scheme, which itself is not a differentiator among electronics producers. More interesting, the plan combines suppliers of 100% recycled tin, fully recaptured aluminum from existing devices through robotics and “specialty recyclers” who would supplement these efforts in recapturing other materials for reuse. This is breathtaking in its ambition.

Innovation, Not Collectivization

What is not found in the closed loop plan is the inclusion of other electronics producers, which are otherwise grouped together legally under existing waste electronic and electrical equipment EPR plans, such as the watershed WEEE Directive – the model for jurisdictions elsewhere. Instead, we see a self-sufficient, go-it-alone plan which signals competition for recovered resources not industry collaboration.

Assumptions Underlying Collective WEEE EPR

The implicit challenge to collective WEEE EPR programs is profound as most presume all electronics products:

  • fit the same product definitions;
  • have similar compositions with similar deconstruction costs;
  • generate roughly the same proportion of non-recoverable waste;
  • have recoverable content consistent across competing products;
  • nothing about the product deconstruction and its content is proprietary; and
  • the producers have no end-of-life interest other than compliance with collective EPR obligations.

In short, collective WEEE EPR presumes all electronic devices are viewed as homogenous and orphaned at the time of recovery and that all producers should generally fund recovery on a per unit basis.

Closed Loop Will Herald Greater Individual EPR

The collective EPR model cannot adapt to a closed loop plan and, at best, would relieve such producers from its clutches. But the consequences will be more profound as the absence of even one electronics colossus will deny collective EPR operatives of both the critical mass needed to function most economically and the legitimacy to continue to operate under its current model.

In its place will come individual EPR, promoting Design-for-Environment and owing little to an oversight body beyond verified diversion. This, a properly functioning closed loop, can most certainly do.