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Smart Devices in a Circular Economy

February 24, 2015

A Circular Economy for Smart Devices – Opportunities in the US, UK and India

A report by the Green Alliance

A Circular Economy for Smart Devices
A Circular Economy for Smart Devices

Smartphones, tablets and laptops have moved from the fringe of computing to the mainstream in just five years. Sales of these smart devices exploded as consumers saw the benefits of seamless connectivity, and were drawn to the simplicity of new user interfaces. In many cases, the environment benefited too, as energy efficient devices displaced older computers, and new mobile-enabled cloud systems became platforms for efficiency across the economy.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole story. Smart devices are smart, but the physical systems they end up in are not: 89 per cent of mobile devices in the US were thrown into landfill in 2010, even though the resources they contain mean it is economically sensible to recycle them. Many millions of usable devices are left forgotten in drawers once their owners upgrade, despite a robust second-hand market. This wastes perfectly good devices, frustrates consumers and harms the environment.

Smart Devices, Bad Systems

The technologists that created mobile computing started with a gloriously blank canvas. They used their creativity to design elegant, useful, and universally desirable new devices and systems. Their products are carried in billions of back pockets and bags across the wealthy world, and they are aiming to sell to the next five billion people, all of whom are eager to benefit from the information and communication that the internet provides.

But these ingenious people have sent their devices out into a world whose physical systems are designed with none of the elegance of their digital counterparts. The result is that old but usable laptops, tablets and smartphones are ending up in landfill or languishing in drawers, where they sit until they reach technological obsolescence. But clever devices deserve better than to become waste after just a couple of years of use: electronics and the cloud services that they connect to can be the source of the solution. Read the RiDx Solution Portfolio – SAP, WR1 Providing a Foundation for the Circular Economy

Six Circular Economy Models for Smart Devices

There is no single model for a circular economy in consumer electronics. The supply chain for mobile devices is complex, highly varied and still evolving. Companies like Apple and Microsoft are vertically integrated across hardware and software; Samsung is even more tightly integrated across hardware, but largely reliant on others for software; Google is mostly a software company but is increasingly influencing hardware design; and carriers, like O2 in the UK or AT&T in the US, provide services but also occasionally produce hardware. There is similar diversity across the whole supply chain.

Rather than imposing a single model, this analysis builds on three types of intervention: hardware, software and business model changes. Each has a number of options, outlined in the tables on the left. Using this framework, six combinations of hardware, software and business model options are set out in this chapter. All will increase the lifetime of older devices, but some will work better for different parts of the supply chain than others. They are developed with information about why different supply chain actors might benefit from a particular model, and also which consumers might find them attractive.

The overall aim is to provide an interested company with enough information to experiment with different ways of becoming more circular.

The six models are:

  • 1. Software led longevity
  • 2. Better reuse
  • 3. Minor modularity
  • 4. Cloud offloading
  • 5. Parts harvesting and remanufacturing
  • 6. DIY repair

Download the Report – A Circular Economy for Smart Devices

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. We have a track record of 35 years, working with the most influential leaders from the NGO, business, and political communities. Our work generates new thinking and dialogue, and has increased political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK. Authors: Dustin Benton, Emily Coats and Jonny Hazell Acknowledgements: Andrea Steves, Audrey Davenport, and Saleem Van Groenou from Google; and Claire Ollerenshaw and Gerrard Fisher from WRAP.