Another fall has come, and another iPhone is here.
Apple Inc.’s dependable annual release of a new smartphone is indicative of the consumer cycle we see with smartphones: 54% of consumers replace their smart devices every one to two years, and 86% say they upgrade their smartphones the most often, compared with other devices.
The broader smart-device industry and supply chain has adapted to this cycle over the years like clockwork. To be more competitive and price-sensitive to the market, manufacturers have implemented innovations and cost-cutting measures in production. Suppliers have responded to this trend as well. Precious metal suppliers now provide manufacturers a cost-effective alternative material that offers the same dependability and performance.
What many may not realize, however, is that this yearly cycle of product replacement carries very real consequences for our environment and personal health.
The Recycling Dilemma
Given the amount of precious and base metals present in smart devices, consumers theoretically should recycle their smart devices at the same rate they replace them. And while 62% of consumers say they know how to recycle their smart devices, only 16% actually do. Additionally, 26% of consumers opt to keep their devices.
This lack of recycling from consumers results in two negative effects. The first is the impact on the precious and base metals supply chain. Many of the precious and base metals used in smart devices are already recycled materials. For this supply chain to remain uninterrupted, materials need to be recycled at a consistent rate. And when consumers hang on to old devices like smartphones and laptops, the precious and base metals in those devices go to waste. This waste factor is especially true for precious metals, which have an expensive recycling process. Enough devices need to be consistently recycled by consumers for the process to be financially viable.
The second and more detrimental effect is the environmental impact. While electronics only make up 2% of the garbage in landfills, they account for 70% of landfills’ toxic waste. Many metals in smart devices also never break down in landfills and can bleed into the ground, poisoning drinking water.
The smart devices piling up in landfills are a ticking time bomb. In the next 10 years, the amount of e-waste generated in the world is expected to skyrocket by nearly 40%. If that growth continues to go unchecked, the toxic risks of e-waste will only become a greater threat.
Greater Consumer Engagement
Just because consumers say they know how to recycle their smart devices doesn’t mean the process is easy.
Type into a search “precious metal recycling near me,” and you won’t find many accessible locations. Recycling devices often requires a drive, as many providers don’t have an easy pickup system. When many consumers associate recycling with dropping bottles and cans into a bin outside their house, putting in extra effort to recycle a device can seem excessive. Additionally, when it comes to devices like laptop computers, many consumers will keep them because they don’t know what to do with the data on their hard drives.
Ultimately, smart device and electronics recycling must be an easier process — which is where industry stakeholders come in. Because of the mounting risks to our own health, the environment and supply chains, smart-device manufacturers and metal suppliers must come together to deepen consumer awareness of recycling and provide avenues for easier recycling methods.
While a joint campaign for consumer education would require major partnerships between smart-device manufacturers and precious metal suppliers, it is possible. For example, smartphone manufacturers could partner with a delivery service such as Amazon.com or UPS to offer smart device-recycling shipping that consumers can easily process and have sent to a recycling company. A retail partner such as Target or Walmart could also serve as a drop-off location for devices to be recycled. Manufacturers could further incentivize consumers by offering a store purchase credit for devices they recycle in the program.
Further education on smart device recycling benefits and consequences should also be present at every step in the smart device customer journey. Manufacturers can work with telecommunication providers to serve as a recycling resource, by advocating for one-to-one communication with customers on how they can recycle their devices and why they should recycle. Some telecom providers such as AT&T and T-Mobile already have programs like this in place, but they need to be brought to the forefront and adopted on a broader industry scale.
Smart-device manufacturers and suppliers, especially precious metal suppliers, have a chance to affect real industry change. With a joint effort on consumer recycling access and education, both parties can ensure the health of their supply chain and reduce the number of devices in landfills that put peoples’ health at risk.
William Crockett Jr. is vice president at Tanaka.
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