All About Green

"Product as a Service" - A Solution for Reducing Electronic Waste

Feb 2024
Author: Green Power
Electronic Waste
© Muntaka Chasant @ Wikipedia

Smartphones, tablets, laptops… various electronic gadgets have become an integral part of our lives. Notably, Hong Kong has a smartphone penetration rate of 97%, one of the highest in the world. Nearly everyone has one in their possession. As adoption of electronic gadgets becomes increasingly widespread, it is not hard to picture the vast amount of electronic waste being generated. United Nations (UN) statistics indicate that global electronic waste exceeded 50 million tonnes in 2019, a drastic increase of 21% from just five years ago. Electronic waste has become one of the most annoying forms of waste around the globe.

According to UN estimates, electronic waste will increase to 74 million tonnes by 2030. Given that electronic waste has high recycling value, recycling should have been enough to reduce the amount of waste. However, the current recycling and repurposing ratio languishes at only around 17.4%. "Product as a service" could very well serve as the new solution for this problem.

"Product as a service" is a concept that emerged only recently. Simply put, it refers to substituting one-time purchasing with renting. During the rental period, the product will be maintained and serviced by the service provider. Once the rental period is over, the product will be recalled, spruced up, and repaired before being made available on the market for rent again. If the recalled product no longer functions normally, the service provider will take it apart, and the still-functioning parts will be used to repair other products. The unusable parts, on the other hand, will be recycled.

Renting Over Buying

"Product as a service" offers long-term maintenance and servicing for a product, extending the life of the product until it truly "dies of old age". At the same time, with service providers being solely in charge of the product cycle, the rate of product repurposing and recycling will be vastly increased. The longer the product cycle and the more efficient the usage, the more minimal resource consumption, carbon emission, and environmental pollution will be from the manufacturing and disposal process as a result.

vast amount of abandoned mobile phones
Wave after wave ofnew mobile phone models, resulting in a vast amount of electronic waste.
© Fairphone @ Wikipedia

In terms of resource consumption, the precious metals and rare earth elements necessary for manufacturing a single electronic gadget - using a basic smartphone for example - include 0.034 grams of gold, 0.34 grams of silver, 0.015 grams of palladium, and less than 0.001 grams of platinum, as well as various rare earth elements, such as yttrium, lanthanum, terbium, neodymium, gadolinium, and praseodymium. The amount of precious metals and rare earth elements that a smartphone contains may not look like a lot, but with billions of smartphones being manufactured every year, the total cumulative amount consumed cannot be overlooked, especially since smartphones are just one among the many types of electronic gadgets.

In terms of environmental pollution, electronic gadgets contain numerous toxic additives and harmful substances, the mishandling of which results in severe pollution and can even bring harm to human health. The UN estimates that 50 tonnes of mercury are released from electronic waste into the environment. Mercury is difficult to eliminate once it enters the human body, and long-term accumulation of it damages organs such as the brain, nervous system, liver, and lungs. The impact is even greater in children.

"Product as a service" is still in a stage of infancy. Currently, it is mostly being tested out in government departments and in some institutions and companies that purchase electronic gadgets in bulk, and has yet to be implemented at an individual level. However, we can still reduce electronic waste in our daily lives, such as utilising electronic gadgets correctly, as well as cleaning and having them serviced on a regular basis; having malfunctioning electronic gadgets repaired; and donating underutilised electronic gadgets. All these help to extend a product’s lifespan. And if a product is no longer usable, it should be disposed of properly or recycled.