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How to find the best e-waste solution

Electronic waste has been a problem since the first appliances left the assembly line. Today, rapid innovation and digitalization are spurring exponential growth in this waste stream. Could recovery management solutions help consumers and tech companies find a better way to reuse, reprocess, and recycle used electronic appliances – and unlock untapped economic value in the process?

Empowering people to recycle e-waste

Over 50 million tons of electric waste is generated each year.

Chances are you have an old phone or two stashed away in the back of a drawer somewhere. Whether you accidentally dropped your phone in the bath or took advantage of an irresistible upgrade offer, you aren’t alone. With the number of game consoles, tablets, and household appliances entering the waste stream also growing dramatically, more and more consumers and companies find themselves wondering what to do when their old devices seem ready for the proverbial scrap heap.

The scale of the problem is mindboggling: we generate over 50 million tons of electric waste worth US$62.5 billion each year. That’s equivalent to 1,000 laptops being thrown away every single second. These end-of-life appliances contain valuable resources, including rare earth minerals, gold, and copper. And with these raw materials becoming scarcer and scarcer and e-waste volumes forecast to rise to 120 million tons by 2050, there’s quite literally no time to waste.

It’s clear that the current way of doing things, the linear model of ‘take, make, and dispose,’ isn’t working. So, how can we solve this and reduce the mountain of e-waste? The answer is by empowering people. There’s so much talk about the transition to a circular economy, but how do we do it? Interestingly enough, it’s going to take more technology and logistics expertise to get e-waste where it needs to go. And that technology is called recovery management. The best solutions will not just coordinate the logistics but also connect businesses and consumers with specialists looking to get their hands on valuable used parts like processors, touchscreens, computer modules, and other tech assets to reprocess or recycle. It’s a win-win approach that delivers both environmental and economic benefits.

What is e-waste, and why is it a problem?

The best solutions will not just coordinate the logistics but also connect businesses and consumers with specialists looking to get their hands on valuable used parts like processors, touchscreens, computer modules, and other tech assets to reprocess or recycle.

Many people wonder what e-waste really is, so let’s start with a definition. Broadly speaking, electronic waste (also known as ‘e-waste’ and ‘waste electrical and electronic equipment’ or WEEE for short) is any item with a plug, electrical cord, or battery that has reached the end of its working life and its components. A burned-out toaster? E-waste. A smelly old  fridge? E-waste. An obsolete laptop? Well, you get the picture.

The contents of each device make e-waste recycling both a challenge and an opportunity. End-of-life appliances can contain up to 1,000 different substances, including precious metals like gold, copper, and nickel, and rare metals like indium and palladium. While many of these metals could be recovered, recycled, and reused in new goods, many are hazardous and hard to treat. And getting them to the right place is even more complex.

50 Million

tons of electronic waste are estimated to be produced each year

$62.5 Billion

is the global annual value of electronic waste


different substances can be contained in a single product


of appliances are collected and recycled properly

How can recovery management solve the e-waste problem?

Keeping e-waste in the loop can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s where e-waste recovery management solutions come in. Recovery management is a holistic process that entails looking at reverse logistics and the various repair, refurbishment, and recycling options to find how best to manage end-of-life appliances. It means bending the current fragmented, linear approach into an end-to-end, circular model. This simplifies reverse logistics and the complexities of the circular supply chain, providing more visibility and making it economically feasible. In some cases, companies can even generate additional income streams.

But what is reverse logistics? In the simplest of terms, it entails moving goods in the opposite direction than normal, from customers back to retailers rather than from shops to buyers. Logistics providers get these goods to places where they can be reused, refurbished, or recycled, opening the door to a second, third, or even fourth life for precious and scarce resources. At the end of the day, reverse logistics is the linchpin to functioning circular supply chains, helping to keep materials in the loop and out of landfills. Recovery management solutions connect the dots every step of the way.

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How Cisco Systems is going circular

Technical services teams inspect and validate new end-of-life recycling solutions.

So, what does circularity look like in the real world? Our Smart Circle solution for Cisco Systems is a great example. With worldwide operations, Cisco needs an all-in-one solution to return, receive, recover, and reuse the networking, hardware, software, and telecommunications equipment it develops, produces, and sells. Smart Circle merges our global logistics capabilities with Cisco’s supply chains to offer the leading tech company end-to-end visibility over all used electronic devices. At the heart of it all is our customer portal, where we can manage every step in the process. Our technical services teams inspect and validate returned products to determine recovery value before sending them on for repair, resale, or recycling. As a result, Cisco lowers its environmental impact, recovers precious raw materials, and generates additional revenue.

The road to reduction starts and ends with recovery

Primary raw materials are becoming increasingly scarce.

With e-waste volumes multiplying and primary raw materials becoming scarcer and scarcer, we need to maximize e-waste reuse and recycling. Recovery management solutions will be the key to unlocking this door. Logistics companies can lend a helping hand, making it easier for consumers to give their defunct appliances a second, third, or even fourth life. 

So, next time you stumble across that old phone or hand-held gaming device, try to find a way to put it back in the loop. It may be less complicated than you think.

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Published: February 2023

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