International E-Waste Day - how Virgin Media O2 and Logitech are tackling e-waste

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett October 14, 2023
Summary:
In our second article to commemorate International E-waste Day, we explore what Logitech and Virgin Media O2 are doing to try and deal with this important, but all too often neglected, sustainability issue.

Circular economy - hand holding grass sustainability loop with choice of globes © BsWei - shutterstock

As explored in the first article of this two-part series, e-waste is a huge, and growing, challenge that needs to be addressed at all stages of a product’s lifecycle. This ranges from how it is designed to how it is dealt with at end-of-life.

But a lack of global standards, little concerted government policy in most countries around the world and limited cooperation with, and within, the tech industry have so far meant that progress in tackling the problem has been slow. One company that has been trying to play its part though is peripherals manufacturer, Logitech. Head of Sustainability Robert O’Mahony explains:

We take a full lifecycle approach, which includes material extraction and refining, manufacturing, supply to market, energy usage by customers and end-of-life determination. So, when we design a product, we don’t just think about schedule to market and cost. Sustainability is key too.

As part of this approach, the supplier is now designing products with circularity in mind. To measure the effectiveness of its activities here, it has also developed its own Circularity Index. The Index is used to evaluate factors, such as a product’s design and whether it allows for disassembly, recycling or refurbishment. It also provides metrics to understand the sustainability of the materials the product is made from and how reusable they are as well as its carbon footprint.

As an example of this approach in action, the vendor has developed plastic resins from recycled materials that are now employed in two out of three of its products - although they cannot yet be used for certain colours or finishes. The move has resulted in it eliminating approximately 9,000 metric tonnes of virgin plastic and approximately 27,000 tonnes carbon waste since going down this route three years ago.

Another important consideration though is the toxicity of the materials used in product creation. O’Mahony explains:

We’ve established a metric to understand the toxic load of each product, which can be overt or covert. So single use plastic may not be toxic itself but can be toxic if it ends up in waterways, which means there are micro and macro considerations. When working with post-consumer recycled resin, we spent a lot of time working on reliability using wet chemistry. But we also use a technique called X-ray fluorescence at our manufacturing locations to understand if there was containment within the supply chain. It was tactical, but we built a capability to determine if any slippage was occurring in our material standards. This is no different to ensuring adherence to quality or performance standards. It’s about engineering our products to ensure they’re safe for users and the environment.

Dealing with product end-of-life challenges

As for dealing with the final part of the challenge, that is when products reach end-of-life, the company has introduced various approaches. For example, it has partnered with recycling firms around the world to establish centres at which businesses and consumers can drop off their e-waste. These can be identified via a location finder function on its website.

To make life even easier in countries, such as the US, it has also set up an incentive-based recycling programme in partnership with consumer electronics retailer, Best Buy. Customers returning their end-of-life products via the scheme receive a 20% discount off their next purchase. As O’Mahony says:

We’re doing this as we want to take an active part in creating a waste stream as we use post-consumer recycled materials at scale and there has to be a trigger for returns. In certain parts of the world, it’s about offering discounts, or ease of access, or catering to people with a more altruistic nature who want to do the right thing. So, we need to facilitate all of these expectations.

To make such an approach work though, O’Mahony points out it is vital to collect enough e-waste to make it worth recyclers while to handle it:

The world works better if people are incentivized to do what needs to be done, and the same principle applies from a commercial perspective. So, there has to be a commercial incentive for a recycling company to get involved. This means it’s about creating mechanisms that allow for consolidated, centralised access to volume e-waste for those who can extract value from it. Europe’s WEEE directive has gone some way to facilitate this, but other parts of the world are more fragmented in how they do it. California, for example, may be good at recycling but other states don’t do as well because there’s no single consolidated approach in the US. So that’s why we engage with retailers, to incentivize consumers to return products in enough volume to make commercial sense.

Another aspect of circularity that Logitech is starting to tackle, although it is still “relatively early days”, is extending the life of products by repairing them. Centres have already been set up in countries, such as China and India, where the repair culture is stronger.

But in places, such as the US and Europe, where recycling is more the norm, the company is experimenting with consumer-supported repair. To this end, it has engaged the iFixit repair advocacy group in a pilot to help its MX Master and Anywhere mice work effectively for longer. O’Mahony explains:

You can generally get seven or eight years out of a mouse, but if something goes, it’ll probably be the battery. In the past, you couldn’t replace it, but now people can access an OEM battery, tools to help them change it and repair guides. We’re scaling the scheme as it needs to be built up, but the focus is on making everything more circular. In the past, consumer electronics were all about buying new things but we want to change that.

How Virgin Media O2 is embedding change

A second organization that is taking the circularity issue seriously is UK mobile network operator, Virgin Media O2. A key aim of its Better Connections sustainability plan is that it becomes a zero-waste business by 2025. The company intends to do this by ensuring more than 95% of all its operational waste is recycled, with less than 5% going to produce energy at waste processing facilities.

To this end, it has introduced enterprise-wide recycling processes to make it easy for employees to take a green tack. This means that all old IT equipment and other tech is sent to a partner for recycling and reuse. Dana Haidan, the organization’s Chief Sustainability Officer, explains:

Processes are embedded to the extent that employees don’t have to think about them. It’s just ‘this is how we do it’. Everyone receives refurbished devices when they join and, once they leave, those devices go through our normal recycling process.

A similar approach has been taken with tech providers in the firm’s wider supply chain:

“We have specific requirements for our suppliers in relation to environmental standards, such as the Science Based Targets Initiative to help cut emissions. It’s a standard most large companies align with now and it’s grounded in the latest thought in climate accounting and climate change. But we also put those requirements into our contracts so, for example, suppliers are required to takeback and recycle their products. We’re a big company so we have purchasing power, and that means we have a role to play in influencing suppliers when we buy technology. So having contractual agreements like this helps to influence system-level change.

Like Logitech, the company also has an O2 Recycle scheme. This provides both customers and non-customers alike with a fee for disposing of their old mobile phones in a more sustainable way. As a result, some 3.8 million devices – around 92% of the total - have been recycled, refurbished or resold as ‘like new’ since the initiative was first introduced in 2009. The rest were broken down for their raw materials.

The network operator’s Community Calling initiative, on the other hand, was implemented with the help of environmental charity, Hubbub. Since it began in 2020, it has passed on more than 15,000 smartphones to communities in need, such as asylum seekers and domestic violence shelters, to help reduce the problem of digital exclusion.

A third programme is the firm’s Time After Time E-waste Fund, which was launched earlier this year again in partnership with Hubbub. The scheme enables community groups, charities and social enterprises to apply for a share of a £500,000 pot to run initiatives that tackle e-waste and support digital inclusion.

My take

Given that the e-waste problem is continuing to spiral and all too many suppliers have to date failed to take sufficient action to curb the problem, the hope is that a few lessons can be learned and ideas gleaned from the activities of two big industry players here.

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