The complex management of electronic waste in France

Reposted August 25, 2021

In the era of everything connected, we refer to Marmiton to cook, to Alexa to find out the opening hours of a restaurant and to its connected fridge to avoid a shortage of butter. A deliberately caricatural description but which describes how much the devices stuffed with electronics populate our daily life. In 2018 alone, nearly 939 million pieces of electronic and electrical equipment were manufactured and offered on the French market, according to Ademe (Ecological Transition Agency). An impressive figure which reflects a frantic race of our fellow citizens to all digital. A trend to which is often added the desire to have an ever more efficient model without waiting for the obsolescence of the previous one. And these behaviors are not reserved for France. In 5 years, the amount of electrical and electronic waste (D3E) produced annually worldwide has increased by 9.2 tons according to the report Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 (UN). An observation that raises questions: what to do with these end-of-life products? Fix them? Recycle them? And above all, are the current solutions sufficient?

Recycling, a solution with multiple advantages

Today, the management of electronic waste is based on the extended responsibility of the producer, ie it is also the responsibility of distributors and users. Thus, qIrrespective of its size and sector of activity, a company cannot dispose of its electronic waste with its household waste. To do this, it calls on eco-organizations responsible for collecting, sorting and processing this waste to recycle it as much as possible. According to the website of the Ministry of Ecologythe French WEEE collection and treatment sector thus manages more than 600,000 tonnes of waste per year.

But once recovered, all this waste does not necessarily find a second life. However, these often contain a gold mine thanks to the lithium, gold, gallium or even antimony they contain, rare metals essential for the manufacture of electronic products but concentrated in China or Bolivia. (for lithium). Which creates In fact dependence of manufacturers on their suppliers.

But if on paper recycling and upgrading seems like an ideal solution, the reality is more complex. Electronic products contain complex and sometimes dangerous chemical compounds that make it very difficult to process them. Not to mention that technological improvements are pushing to create ever smaller chips and processors, which does not improve the operation in any way. Finally, the extraction of minerals is tedious and not necessarily profitable.. ” Lare you wearingeconomic considerations always trump ecology, develops Grazia Cecere, researcher in economics at Mines-Telecom Business. We will recycle even more certain equipment as the price of metals essential to the manufacture of electronic products (gold, silver, and copper) increases”.

Better manage product recovery

Jean-Paul Raillard, President of the Envie network and federation, notes a second barrier to the development of recycling. ” Today, there are two separate collection activities: clean waste intended for reuse and deposited in ad hoc collection centers and which is intended to find a second life if it can be recovered. And the waste that is collected in other collection points – recycling centers, for example – and intended to be transported without taking care of it in treatment centers” . These then end up crushed to extract material recovery.

Why isn’t reuse therefore systematically encouraged in both sectors? ” The companies are paid per ton of products thrown away: the more consumers throw away, the more we are paid. It’s the paradox . In this context, the president of the Envie network preaches for a ” reorganization of the reuse sectors and the introduction of more fluidity in the collection points in order to systematically promote sorting for reuse as far upstream as possible” .

Pierre-Emmanuel Saint-Esprit, co-founder and general manager of Zack, a company specializing in the sorting and recycling of electronic waste, is more nuanced. ” Waste Management [opérée par les éco-organismes, ndlr] enters into the CSR balance sheet of companies and certifies that they are fighting against waste. But the current price is around 40 euros per ton of PCs purchased, but few companies do anything for a recovery at such a price. Conversely, Zack allows 85% of its customers – including Doctolib, Qonto, Aircall and Algolia – to recover an attractive sum of money through the resale of their used products.

Repair rather than throw away

But companies are not the only ones responsible for the management of this famous waste. The state also has a key role to play. France is one of the countries that are quite active on the subject, as evidenced by the establishment of a repairability index. Deployed in the form of a label affixed to 5 product categories, it allows, since January 1, 2021, to see at a glance whether it is easily repairable or not. Several criteria are taken into account to perform this rating such as the availability of spare parts, their price, the tools required or the creation of online tutorials. It should be noted, however, that software updates are not taken into account even though they are responsible for obsolescence of use.

This index nevertheless has the advantage of responding to two trends: the second hand – BackMarket or CertiDeal companies have made it their business – and repairs in Repair Cafés or by professionals. However, this approach is not always profitable for the consumer because buying a new product is sometimes less expensive than having yours repaired. Not to mention that with new, the consumer has an often longer warranty. It is also on this point that France has room for maneuver to act, taking the example of some of its European neighbors who offer repair checks or reduce VAT – from 25 to 12% for Sweden – on related services to repair in order to encourage consumers to choose this solution. Despite everything, Jean-Paul Raillard remains confident and draws up an optimistic scenario for the future. ” LThe price of repairs will drop which will extend the life of the products and in 10 years, the stores will offer a few ranges of new durable products and many second-hand devices. But itThis type of solution can only be developed if the end of life of the product is better thought out upstream, right from the creation process.

Better think about the end of life of products

To be able to be better repaired or recycled, the products must indeed have been well designed, designed to be solid and easy to dismantle. Unfortunately, ” we are in a linear economy with very little eco-design” observes Pierre-Emmanuel Saint-Esprit. The design has long been dictated by standards of profitability and performance that take little or no account of the management of the product as waste. Eco-design goes against the current by imagining from the outset the end of life of the product to make it as less polluting as possible. The choice of materials is essential, as is the lifespan offered to the product and its robustness. Two concepts that do not necessarily go hand in hand with a logic of market economy. A few companies have tried to get into the niche. Fairphone has been developing for several years a modular phone, easy to repair and upgrade. But the first version caused some disappointment and mainly attracts insiders.

For the moment, the decrease in electronic equipment does not seem to be on the agenda. According to the GfK institute, the French consumer electronics market enjoyed 6% growth in 2020, with a turnover of 4.7 billion euros. Another indicator of growing consumption after the shock of the pandemic, theGlobal smartphone sales increased by 26% in the first quarter of 2021 according to the Gartner Institute. 5G should still drive demand, which even very high prices should not curb. It will be understood: the solutions for more sustainable consumption are therefore not only in the hands of public authorities and companies – they are also in those of consumers.

This article constitutes the last part of The repairability reporta four-part series produced by the French and UK editorial staff of Maddyness about the growing issue of e-waste. After starting at the end of the product lifecycle, we will soon look at its beginning. We will examine the new policies implemented in this area in France and the United Kingdom, as well as the way in which we can encourage Big Tech to take their responsibilities.

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