By Nuru Saadun Ahmed

A European Commission-funded project supported by the United Nations (UN) has called upon consumers to demand eco-friendly electronics made with recycled plastics, while urging electronics manufacturers to redesign their products to both improve recyclability and integrate reusable plastics in a move aimed at reducing e-waste.

The call made by a multinational consortium called Post Consumer High-tech Recycled Polymers for a Circular Economy (PolyCE), was prompted by a report by the Nordic Council of Ministers stating that despite plastics accounting for 20% of materials used in electronic and electrical equipment majority of them are not designed for recovery and reuse.

In response, the PolyCE consortium is launching a two-year campaign to raise awareness among consumers and manufacturers to change their attitudes towards recycled plastics while improving their market uptake.

“Plastics are a valuable resource with a great potential for circularity. Plastics themselves aren’t the problem; our so-called plastics problems relate to attitudes and waste management,” said project partner Kim Ragaret, University of Gent.

According to PolyCE consortium experts products can be designed in ways that make material recovery of plastic components easier. Of the more than 12 million tonnes of e-waste expected next year in Europe (EU, Norway and Switzerland), an estimated 2.5 million tonnes (23 percent) will be plastics, this is 2.5 times the 1 million tonnes of plastic landfilled as e-waste components in 2000.

The consortium further noted with concern a report from Sweden that, globally, just 10% of higher-grade plastics from durable goods is recovered and recycled worldwide today, and this compares poorly with average 50 to 90% recovery and recycling rates for metals and glass.

The project demonstrates that it is economically feasible for electronics manufacturers to make products containing high-quality recycled plastics since the products are just as long-lasting and durable as those containing virgin plastics. Besides, recycling plastics is anticipated to take pressure off waste systems since every recycled tonne would deter at least 3 tonnes of Carbon dioxide emissions that are released while making new plastic.

In a recent consumer survey carried out by the PolyCE project, it was found that half of the respondents did not know if they had ever bought an electronic item that included recycled plastic. Of the 25% who said yes to the question, 86% did not notice any difference in quality, appearance or performance. After being informed about the health and environmental benefits of recycled plastic components in electronics, 95% of those surveyed affirmed that they would consider buying products with recycled plastics.

Furthermore, the survey revealed that consumers show a high willingness to act in line with the circular economy, but actual engagement was still low.

UN University e-waste expert, Dr. Ruediger Kuehr notes that the vital roles of the consumers in a sustainable, circular economy and manufacturing system include:  postponing replacement of electronic and electrical products by repairing old ones; and when these products are discarded, recycle them properly. He adds that consumers should favor products made with recycled plastic and use their individual purchasing power to support products that have designed out waste and designed in reused materials.

While encouraging manufacturers to adopt eco-friendly designs which make it easier for recovering plastic components for recycling, Dr. Kuehr says: “Major environmental and financial savings could be achieved simply through better design.”

In addition, manufactures need to use recycled plastic in their products while also advertising these features and their resourcefulness to their consumers.

“In the end, realization of a circular economy will be a joint effort between product designers, manufacturers and material recyclers, as well as consumers,” he concludes.