Breathing new life into idle electronics

Canada is one of the world’s most digitized nations with smartphone penetration at 87.8%, and most households owning multiple electronic products. These products have arguably allowed us to live better and more efficient lives but come at a staggering cost in terms of waste. 

Every year it is estimated that 53.6 million tons of household electronics are discarded, a number expected to rise to 74.7 million tons by 2030. Much of this either gets dumped in landfill sites or is shipped to developing countries to be stripped of valuable metals and other parts, often at great environmental and human cost. 

Pressure to recycle

There is growing pressure among policymakers and the general public to increase recycling rates, and a drive among the recycling industry to do this in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.

Recently, experts have called for European producers to be made responsible for managing their e-waste internationally through Ultimate Producer Responsibility (UPR), and we can expect more demands in the years to come as industry, experts and governments tackle the problem of electronic waste. 

China, too, is moving in this direction and the circular economy has become an important pillar of the country’s economic strategy. However, the recycling and circular economy sector is still developing, with hundreds of thousands of small and medium sized businesses all operating independently of each other.

Intellectual property protection

From a regulatory and legal standpoint, sellers of pre-owned electronic goods need a certain degree of protection under the law. For instance, the refurbishment of pre-owned electronics could in some circumstances trigger copyright infringement from the original manufacturers. In Shenzhen, a quarter of trademark infringement involves these kinds of disputes, and this can have an effect upstream in the recycling sector. If second-hand electronics cannot be sold legally then everything grinds to a halt. 

Earlier this year the Shenzhen Procuratorate issued guidelines that clarified intellectual property infringement of electronic product renovation, providing a strong legal guarantee that has enabled the healthy development of the industry. 

The process of inspecting, testing and identifying working models is manpower and time intensive. However, technology has advanced to such a stage that we are now able to automate the process of pre-owned electronic goods inspection.  

Automated testing

It is possible to inspect an the iPhone from the outside to check for exterior defects using a high-resolution camera. The next robot will check its functionality, using ‘robot fingers’ to tap the screen and check what works and what doesn’t. The phone then goes through an x-ray machine that is able to check for internal defects, before being sorted and stored. 

A newly developed system can clear all information in these mobile phones. AiQingChu is a targeted and exclusive privacy protection algorithm, which has ADISA Certification and supports data clearing through different international standards. At present, the system has cleared the privacy of more than 10 million devices. 

This system allows sorting working phones from defective ones. The working models are then sent back out into the marketplace with their pricing determined by a proprietary algorithm based on age, physical condition, depreciation, market conditions and other factors. 

Consumers are also able to sell their old mobile phones via a self-service kiosk. By placing their phone in the kiosk, the device is inspected, and a sale price issued. If the consumer is satisfied with this, then they receive payment. Over 1,800 kiosks are currently installed across the country, encouraging millions of consumers to recycle their old electronic devices. 

Lessons learned

These advances in China hold two key lessons for the industry worldwide. First, the technology exists that can make the inspection of electronics quick and low cost. This then allows for idle devices to get back into the marketplace where they can be used.  

The second lesson is that it is possible to inculcate a circular economy from the bottom-up, through partnerships between government, major tech firms and small and medium sized companies, as well as smart regulations and consumer incentives. 

Industry players and policymakers should look at the blueprint provided by us in China as see how it can be replicated where they are. The result is a lower reliance on extended, complicated supply chains, technology bringing recycling closer to home and the growth of a truly circular economy. 

Kerry Chen is the CEO of ATRenew. Headquartered in Shanghai, ATRenew Inc. operates a technology-driven pre-owned consumer electronics transactions and services platform.