Will tech-hungry U.S. consumers cut out single-function electronics for the circular economy?

Not even the pandemic can halt the incredible market demand for consumer electronics in today’s digital world. Despite a slight drop in market size in 2020, analysts predict that the sector will grow from today’s value of $689.45 billion to $989.37 billion by 2027.

One notable driver of the sector’s growth is an ever shorter innovation cycle. New models of TVs, tablets, laptops, and phones come onto the market at a rate outpacing consumer expectations. These products boast improved features that, more often than not, sway consumers to ditch what they already own for new features or faster performance.

Yet, alongside the convenience that electronics have brought to our lives, the industry has levied a heavy toll on the environment. The United Nations reports that as much as 50 million metric tons of electronic waste (“e-waste”) is produced every year that is worth over $62.5 billion.

According to emerging trends within sustainability, anyone who wants to buck this trend when shopping for a new home electronic should first consider whether a device they already own, like a smartphone or a tablet, can offer the same service they are after. The more we use multi-functional devices for work and play rather than products that can do one thing well—like a flat-screen TV—the less e-waste we might generate. 

Over the last two decades, the smartphone has replaced a host of once-ubiquitous products as a go-to for navigation, web searching, listening to music, watching shows, taking photos, and much else. That’s no surprise: Dropping multiple devices for one that can do everything (what sustainability researchers call “device convergence”) is a no-brainer—when the quality seems better, that is.

But are U.S. consumers ready to binge-watch their next crave-worthy show on a tablet instead of a new 55-inch, OLED TV with an 8-million-pixel display? Maybe not, suggests recent research from the Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

Is digital sustainable?

Sustainability researchers see two important trends at work in the ways electronics have changed in the United States over the past three decades: digitization and a general slimming-down when it comes to product design.

Going digital has the potential to cut material and energy use because it sidesteps resource-heavy production and delivery services. The COVID-19 pandemic is a recent example: Working from home using teleconferencing platforms means less fossil-fueled vehicles are driven to meetings and offices.

From the 1990s on, flat-screened TVs began to replace the bulky, heavy cathode-ray tube (CRT) sets that were the staple of the middle-class American household. New technologies, like LCD (liquid crystal display) screens, offered consumers an attractive alternative to heavy, lead-containing CRT TVs. Providing the same service—like watching movies—using a lighter weight product may leave a smaller environmental footprint. (Sustainability researchers call this “dematerialization.”)

In addition to these larger historical trends, many sustainability-minded manufacturers have intentionally sought ways to incorporate circular economy strategies, such as using recycled materials in production or by making products easier to recycle. 

So, if digitization and more efficient design mean less material and energy is used, why do electronics continue to make up one of the world’s most challenging forms of waste?

Eyes on consumer behavior

One missing link is consumer behavior, according to a 2021 study, “The role of consumer preferences in reducing material intensity of electronic products,” published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology. GIS researchers designed a survey of 1,100 U.S. adults to better understand how consumer perceptions and preferences in the United States influence how people purchase and use electronic products.

“As electronics evolve away from large products valued as bulk materials to smaller products with very small amounts of specialty metals, consumer behavior must be understood to overcome barriers to the circular economy,” said the study’s lead author, Barbara Kasulaitis. “The effectiveness of device convergence as a sustainability strategy is dependent upon consumer willingness to adopt particular devices.”

Experts increasingly agree that how digital electronic products are actually consumed—how often consumers purchase new electronics, how they use them and for how long, and how they discard them—can outweigh any technological or efficiency benefit intended by their designers. A 2015 study from the University of Zurich found that even if the use of devices like laptops and tablets to access information and communicate has the potential to reduce environmental impacts, they may also increase them.

“What surprised me most about the survey results was the relatively limited use of the tablet. Although we expected tablets to replace laptops, what we learned suggested that they were instead primarily used for entertainment purposes,” Kasulaitus noted.  

Kasulaitis led the study with co-authors Callie Babbitt, a GIS professor, and Christy Tyler, a professor at RIT’s College of Science.

Babbitt has led more than 25 studies exploring circular economy opportunities for consumer electronics in the United States through over $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, the Consumer Technology Association, and the Staples Sustainable Innovation Lab at GIS. One study she co-authored found that the number of consumer electronics in a typical American household grew from less than eight in 1990 to more than 20 by 2010. Another mapped the growth and evolution of e-waste in the United States since the 1950s, discovering that the amount of electronics discarded from U.S. households is on the decline. Yet, despite the drop, today’s e-waste—in the shape of ever smaller electronics like smartwatches, fitness trackers, and smart home assistants—may be more impactful because it contains precious metals and rare earth minerals that rely on energy-intensive mining practices. This is a double-edged sword, says Babbitt, because the same innovations that are shrinking electronics are also making them harder to recycle.

“Building a circular economy for consumer electronics requires a proactive approach that treats digital discards as resources, not waste. Government, industry, and consumers all have roles to play. Progress will require designing products that are easier to repair and reuse, and persuading consumers to buy material-efficient devices and then to keep them in use for longer,” Babbitt observed.

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Circular Economy

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About the author

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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