Predicting the future of eMaterials Management

Predicting the future of eMaterials Management

16 January 2017

Have you seen the new products introduced at CES this year?

Drones! Robots! Self-driving cars! Tiny connected things! TVs that hang like wallpaper!

In other words…incremental change. I’m not seeing any game-changers coming out of CES 2017, and that’s fine; the vast majority of human progress comes via evolution, not revolution.

Reading through the various “best of CES” lists led me to ponder the implications of this idea for the eMaterials recycling industry. In its brief history, our industry hasn’t seen much disruption by game-changing technologies; the smartphone is the main example that comes to mind for the way it has transformed the market for recycling and reusing electronic materials. But many other technologies have had a major—and more evolutionary—impact; think about laptops in the ‘90s, telecom infrastructure equipment in the ‘90’s-‘00’s, and tablets in the last few years.

This got me thinking about how we determine what kind of industry impact evolving technologies are going to have. Will there be profitable recycling or reuse opportunities in products like this year’s PowerRay Underwater Drone? The Moro Robot? The Chrysler PortalMotiv Smart Ring? LG’s OLED W7? How about Lenovo’s Smart Assistant? What factors can help us answer this question?

Without doing any kind of formal analysis, here are the factors I came up with:

  • Adoption: Let’s face it, the eMaterials Lifecycle Management industry does not run on niche products. Every category of device we manage to extract post-first-life value from tends to sell in huge numbers.
  • Longevity: Since reuse is the best second life for any device, we need to look at how long a category of devices can remain usable—and desirable to a market segment. Further, usability depends on durability, technological compatibility, and ongoing performance, while desirability is a function of what a market segment both wants and needs. As we’ve seen with smartphones, as the feature set has matured consumers are finding fewer reasons to upgrade—and, simultaneously, demand for prior generation technology devices is increasing from less developed markets, creating both a longer first-use lifecycle and ideal markets for second life phones.
  • Recoverability: If the device can’t be reused, does it present an attractive candidate for materials recovery? Does it contain metals that are rare or expensive to mine? Does it contain components for which there are strong secondary markets (perhaps to refurbish similar models for reuse)? Can these materials and components be cost-effectively harvested from the device?
  • Incentives: How likely is it that users will go to the trouble of recycling the device? There are a range of reasons people recycle used devices. Highest turn-in rates tend to happen when users have either a strong financial incentive (think smart phones) or little choice (think car batteries). Convenience also plays a big role: consumers in Europe–where producer-financed battery take back schemes are common due to the EU Battery Directive—are recycling nearly half their household batteries. In the US, where household battery recycling is typically painful (and often impossible), only around 10% of batteries are recycled.
  • Environmental impact: Does the device contain materials that will harm the environment if not properly recycled? While many of us in the industry wish sustainability played a bigger role in consumers’ thinking about what to do with a used device, recycling rates indicate that this is not the case. However, as we saw in the US with lead-acid car batteries and with the WEEE directive in Europe, the negative environmental impact of landfilling eMaterials can often lead to legislation that creates opportunities for players in our industry.

When I apply these criteria to some of the more hyped products coming out of CES, I come to the following conclusions:

  • It’s hard to imagine a day when drones will be as ubiquitous as smartphones, so the aftermarket for them will likely remain limited. I expect that reuse and parts harvest markets will be strongest, but that, unfortunately, most broken devices will find their way into landfills.
  • It’s easier to imagine a day when robots and home assistants will be ubiquitous, and that their tech advancements and adoption will proceed similarly to smart phones, creating similar demand for post-first-use devices and harvested components.
  • For electric cars like the Chrysler Portal, ubiquity is virtually certain—and the second-life market for their batteries is already beginning to form, with reuse opportunities in fixed power storage applications and recycling techniques that are constantly improving in cost-effectiveness.
  • Wearables like the Motiv ring seem likely to reach the adoption ubiquity of smart phones, and to follow a similar second life market trajectory, although the lower end models may never find a reuse market due to their low cost entry points, and manufacturing techniques necessitated by the small size of these devices will likely make parts harvesting expensive if not pointless.
  • As for the ever evolving flat screen TV industry, it’s almost as hard to imagine sales slowing down as it is to imagine we’ll need even higher than 4k resolution. The good news is that most people (78%) recycle their old TVs. The bad news, likely familiar to anyone in the electronics recycling business, is that most of these devices can’t be cost effectively recycled or refurbished for reuse. Producer or government subsidies are likely the only mechanism that will make TV processing tolerable for recyclers for the foreseeable future.

What’s your take on the future of electronics recycling and reuse? Leave a comment below and let us know!