Infographic: A Hard Look at E-Waste and Sustainability Efforts in Device Manufacturing

Tomorrow is Earth Day — a time to reflect on the state of the climate crisis and commit to taking action to address the threats of pollution and climate change. 

The official theme for this year’s Earth Day is Invest In Our Planet,” an appeal to governments, businesses, and institutions around the world to help accelerate the transition to an equitable, prosperous green economy for all.”

With the 1.5° C climate target all but dead, highlights the need for urgency around the transition toward sustainable business practices. It states, There is no longer a choice between going green and growing long term profits. It is crucial businesses of all sizes to act now.” However, the organization also points out that businesses that invest in sustainability are seeing real benefits. Sustainability is the path to prosperity for humanity and businesses alike. Companies who’ve developed strong Environmental Social Governance (ESG) standards are seeing better profitability, stronger financial performance, and happier employees.”

Certainly, it’s hard to deny that there is a growing hunger for sustainably manufactured products. A recent report by First Insight and the Wharton School found that 75% of Gen Z participants would opt for sustainable goods over brand-name goods. Additionally, 73% of Gen Z consumers also expect companies to match their values in order to earn their business, meaning that businesses who want to win the loyalty of this increasingly powerful consumer segment will need take meaningful action on sustainability.

What is the current state of smartphone sustainability?

As you’ll see from the infographic below, e-waste — including, but not limited to, smart devices — is a growing problem around the world. According to the Global E-Waste Monitor, annual e-waste generation has increased by approximately two million metric tons per year since 2014. The lion’s share of that waste is not properly recycled and ends up either in landfills, burned, or illegally traded.

This lack of proper recycling creates serious impacts. In addition to the problem of plastic waste, there is also the impact of the mining required to replace the precious minerals used to manufacture replacements — such as copper for wire or cobalt for rechargeable batteries.

There is some improvement in the smartphone sector when it comes to sustainability — albeit not enough to offset the overall growing pile of discarded handsets. One of the reasons for the decline in global smartphone sales is that consumers are shifting to longer purchase cycles. Ranjit Atwal, Senior Director Analyst at Gartner, said, Consumers are holding onto their phones longer than expected, from six to nine months, and moving away from fixed to flexible contracts in the absence of meaningful new technology.” 

The refurbished device market is also growing very rapidly, given the need for affordability and the high quality of today’s refurbished devices, and represents a significant opportunity for telecom retailers to adapt to changing market conditions. Counterpoint reports that this market grew 15% YOY in 2021 in the U.S. — even higher in rapid-growth regions such as Latin America and India — and is predicted to continue increasing in the future.

Consumers are voting with their feet, and device manufacturers and retailers alike will need to find ways to get on board with the push for sustainability and recycling. It’s clear that, for some major OEMs today, investments in sustainability represent a key opportunity to hold on to sales in a declining market.

Apple and Samsung lead in sustainability improvements, though much work remains to be done.

Continued support for older models is a key reason that Apple leads in device longevity. Smartphone updates are critical to maintaining functionality and security by patching bugs and security flaws that could expose your data. Apple is still providing updates for the iPhone 8, which was introduced in 2017

In contrast, Android phones have much lower access to updates. Premium Android phones typically come with two years of OS updates and three years of security updates. In budget and low-end Android phones, it’s not uncommon to see models that cut off support after just one year. 

However, when it comes to manufacturing, Samsung is already making impressive promises about carbon reductions. The global device manufacturer recently announced its commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions in their consumer electronics business by 2030, and business-wide by 2050

Mark Newton, head of sustainability for Samsung Americas, acknowledges that these reductions are going to require new solutions to existing challenges. Reducing emissions in semiconductor manufacturing represents a particular challenge, he says. The infrastructure really isn’t well developed yet. So we were leaning into that and not just waiting for it to occur, and we do expect to be able to get there. We’re not going to get to net zero without that. We have to figure this part of it out.”

What more can OEMs do to help reduce e-waste?

A recent study by Counterpoint recommends three top ways that OEMs can reduce their contributions to the problem of e-waste:

  1. Extending the life of smart devices: More than three quarters of the consumer technology industry’s CO2 emissions come from the manufacturing, shipping, and first-year usage of smartphones, laptops, and tablets.
  2. Incentivizing trade-ins to increase the number of refurbished devices: even accounting for the emissions caused by shipping and refurbishing old phones, refurbishing extends the life of a device and reduces overall emissions.
  3. Improving manufacturing processes and materials: which can include using recycled materials, making facilities energy-efficient, and encouraging renewable energy.

When it comes to implementing and supporting sustainability initiatives, there may be challenges ahead for both device manufacturers and the retailers selling and activating those devices. But with a demanding new generation of environmentally savvy consumers taking over, it’s not a matter of whether those businesses should get on board, but figuring out how to do so and remain profitable.

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