In our latest interview, Dr. Deepali from Sofies Group tells us more about why we should be concerned about e-waste, her journey into the field and why we should start recycling those dusty old phones hiding in our drawers.
Could you tell us what e-waste is and why we should be concerned about it?
In my field, I deal with a lot of e-waste that includes old end-of-life computers, printers, scanners, phones, refrigerators and hairdryers… basically anything that runs on electricity via a plug or a battery. This topic of e-waste is one which is rapidly evolving and very current, since new products and technologies are entering the market daily. It is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world.
Just a couple of days ago, a new report was published by the United Nations, called the Global e-Waste Monitor which really quantifies this problem globally. Unlike many other waste streams, e-waste has really peculiar characteristics – it contains a lot of precious metals and valuable substances like gold, silver, copper and normal commodities like steel and aluminium, which are things you want to keep in the circular economy. However, there are also a lot of hazardous substances present so you need to take care of it by making sure that it is being treated properly and recycled in the right manner.
What was your journey like and how has the field changed over the years?
My journey into this topic was actually very accidental – when I started out 16 years ago, the e-waste landscape was very nascent. It has evolved a lot since then, with more awareness and legislation coming into place. In Singapore, there’s going to be Extended Producer Responsibility soon. There are legislations in draft in many countries in Africa and in Asia, and a lot of countries in Europe. Japan and South Korea already have the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation which holds producers responsible for e-waste. Through EPR, governments can create the systems and financing mechanisms to bring electronics back into the recycling chain. Otherwise, they would be either sitting in drawers, or small electronics like mobile phones might be improperly disposed of, ending up in landfills.
The path I took was very unconventional and when I started, there was almost nothing (or very little) on the topic. I started off with a masters thesis then went on to do my PhD on it, and since then I’ve been working with the United Nations University, the STEP initiative, private sector companies and multilateral organisations like the World Bank and a lot of bilateral cooperation agencies which are really looking at supporting countries to improve waste management. This is one of those streams which has a high priority for many. Working on various aspects of e-waste, whether it is policy, technology or with the informal sector, along with training and capacity-building, is what I do at Sofies. I head a team in India, of about 6 people, and it is a really exciting area actually, so I’m really happy to be able to talk about it.
That sounds like quite a journey. The part about phones are lying around in the drawers, well if you open up my drawer now you can find some phones in there...
Same for everybody, I think! We’ve all had several generations of phones right now, each one smarter than the other.
Continuing along the same line, what is Sofies all about?
We call ourselves a micro-multinational consultancy. We are headquartered in Geneva and we have offices in the U.K and India. I head the India office and we typically consult and provide advisory services on sustainability topics. Some examples include eco-industrial parks and alternative energy systems. I also work a lot on urban mining and secondary resources which involves taking a deeper look at various waste streams. It could be electronics or plastics, but increasingly other waste streams like textiles or tyres are being studied. Batteries are another very up-and-coming topic.
We’re doing a very interesting pilot on solar panel waste recycling. So we are really at the point where a lot of my projects are focusing on bringing back materials into the circular economy. Sofies works on a range of other topics as well, including supporting companies in managing their sustainability objectives and working with various stakeholders - governments, multinationals and bilateral agencies - so it’s quite a diverse portfolio of projects that we’re handling.
That sounds really exciting; I didn’t know you could actually recycle solar panel waste at all. Right now, where are we with circularity in e-waste? What kind of technologies are available? What might we need to do to achieve greater circularity?
We all need to have the mindset of using [products] first as much as possible and making sure that when they reach their end-of-life, we bring them back to be recycled. If we keep them in our drawers or at home, those materials won’t re-enter the economy. Additionally, many places lack those recycling systems or infrastructure. To do so requires on one hand, investment into infrastructure and technology to collect and recycle them, but on the other hand also necessitates consumer behaviour changes. How can we get people to understand that you cannot just throw these electronics into a bin, as they need to be taken to a proper disposal facility?
Both those levers of technology and consumer awareness are important - unless consumers bring back their electronics, there is no reverse circular cycle – it just stops there. That is the way I like to think about it. You can’t only have a technical fix - it’s a lot about behavioural changes and raising awareness. You need to have a mix of both.
After so many years of experience, how do you think the industry has evolved since the time you started?
On the recycling side, the industry has evolved quite a lot. There are a lot of recyclers and entrepreneurs coming in to set up the infrastructure for recycling and dismantling around the world.
The policy landscape has also changed a lot - previously, people would ask me “Oh e-waste, does that mean spam mail?”. We have come a long way because now e-waste is commonly understood and legislations are in place in many countries.
In terms of the industry, I think there is a recognition that you do need to make more efforts in the downstream and also upstream. There is focus on not just recycling at end-of-life, but also on quality materials and making sure that the electronics are made well and can be recycled easily.
So I think overall we have a lot to be proud of. There has been a lot of work going oin the last 15 years. You can’t say the problem is solved but there have definitely been steps towards it. I am quite positive overall that we will find good solutions for e-waste management.
It’s great that we are moving in a more positive direction collectively. Do you think that big brands and sustainability campaigns have a role to play? For example, in circular fashion, we often see a lot of brands bringing up green clothing lines. But we don’t really see that in electronics sector.
Absolutely. I think that big brands have realised the value of this and they are really increasingly publicizing their circular efforts. I think more and more producers are really integrating this thinking into their business model, and this is what is very exciting about this kind of transition. It’s not about “let’s sell this product and then forget about it”, it’s really about how can we make sure this product and the customer are both taken care of, so it’s not just from the product side, but also the business side thinking which is creating that value.
A lot of manufacturers have been taking incremental steps in using recycled materials, reducing imperfect packaging, looking at their carbon emissions. From a realistic perspective, they might be working behind the scenes.
Like you said, there are big brands and leading multinationals who are really investing time and effort to make this happen. So I don’t want to pick out one or the other because there are several and it’s possible to read about this online. Here are some links you can browse:
A multi-stakeholder organisation dedicated to solving the e-waste problem through circularity: http://www.step-initiative.org A start-up that is empowering the informal e-waste sector: https://www.ecowork.international What is the proudest moment in your career to date?
Career wise will be getting my PhD which was a long time coming. On a personal note of course, are my children. What’s funny is that they all happened in the same 2-3 months.. It was quite packed.
Congrats on both your PHD and kids! Wow, it must be really hard to balance them both.
Yeah, it was on one hand hard, but it was also motivational. It was great to have deadlines.
Speaking of young people, what advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in the field and wants to have a career in circular electronics?
I think to young people I would say that there is a whole world of opportunities in this topic on circularity because it is becoming more urgent globally . It does not matter if you are in a developed or developing country, there are opportunities across various kinds of professions to work in these domains. You could be working in logistics or marketing or operations or HR. All these skills are needed by organisations that are focused in this sector of circular economy.
So I would say to young people that this is really a sunrise, a green field sector which is going to grow and has a lot of scope for development and innovation. I think that is also very exciting. It is always great to have new ideas and test new things. This is also a sector that has a lot of entrepreneurial motivation and interest from different types of organizations that are concerned about the triple bottom line: environment, society and profit. So I would say go for it, take a plunge, if you are thinking of this as a sector to be in.
You are definitely right about innovation in the field. We are running ClimateLaunchpad at the moment and we definitely saw a few ideas on e-waste and battery recycling.
Great. I am happy to know that more people are coming up with circular e-waste businesses. The business case is very important. It is not only about being environmentally conscious, it should also make business sense to be sustainable in the long run. All the best to these entrepreneurs and I am happy to speak to them if they have questions.
To wrap up, a fun question. What is one quote you live by in your daily life?
Don’t always try to swim against the tide but also don’t be afraid to stand out and be different. Go with the flow but still be different.
Attend our upcoming webinar to learn more about the circular economy for electronics and hear more from Dr. Deepali: