The huge recent shift in the global recycling industry presents both challenges and opportunities for electronics makers, says Mark Newton, head of North America corporate sustainability at Samsung Electronics.
A scientist with a background in chemistry, Newton oversees environmental regulatory issues and sustainability initiatives. In addition, he connects internal teams with agencies, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders around sustainability issues.
“Samsung has a responsibility to collect and recycle unwanted and nonworking electronic products in the United States,” Newton says. The reason is twofold: to provide a service for customers and to follow through on corporate responsible recycling commitments, he added.
We caught up with him to learn more about those goals, and Samsung Electronics America’s circular economy strategy for reaching them.
What are Samsung’s e-waste goals, and where are you now in relation to them?
Typically we collect and recycle about 100 million pounds of e-waste every year in the US alone. Our programs have been in operation since around 2008, and we’re actually on target to collect over 1 billion pounds this year.
Globally, to put that in perspective, we’ve collected and responsibly recycled about 6.2 billion pounds of electronics. We’re on track to collect about 8 billion pounds by 2020. We have a goal to collect and recycle 15 billion cumulative pounds of electronics globally by 2030.
We focus on circular economy principles, which are related to sustainable design and recovery, and we’ve set a goal to incorporate 1 billion pounds of recycled plastic into our electronics by 2030. We’re making progress and have essentially hit the halfway point.
How do you close the loop?
One thing to understand is the United States is not a party to the UN Basel Convention. Through our global policy, fulfillment in the United States, and a commitment to the e-Stewards standard for responsible recycling, Samsung is working to ensure that there’s no export of non-working electronics that would create issues around unsafe repair or disposal of hazardous waste in developing countries. That differentiates us from many other electronics manufacturers.
By doing that, we offer security to our customers so they understand that the materials we’re handling are being managed properly on their behalf.
We also have recycling services for businesses, referring them to a network of companies that specialize in value recovery. A lot of equipment from our business customers has value, and they can actually share in the benefit of keeping that material in commerce. So we work with them to identify ways to repair and re-market that material to extend its use.
What do you look for in recycling partners?
We hold our recyclers to very high standards. The recyclers that we work with — and that others in our industry work with — are specialized in electronics recovery. Some of them aren’t recyclers at all, they’re more like brokers that take in equipment, assess it, and send it out. Sometimes it might be overseas for repair, or they’ll carve out certain valued material and there will be unusable nonfunctional fractions managed further downstream.
We look for partners that ensure the material they collect is handled properly, and have established downstream networks that they audit and that we independently audit, too. There’s material balance that we can show and they can prove all the way down through to final disposition. That’s the key.
It’s in the best interest of any firm that is considering a recycler to understand exactly what it is that recycler does, who their downstream partners are, and how they’re managing that partnership.
Are the recent changes in the recycling industry, especially in North America, creating a challenge for you?
When you think about circular economy principles, responsible materials management, and sustainability, it means that the waste from one process has to become the feedstock for another process. And it’s not always practical to create circular flows within a single sector.
The challenge — and the opportunity — is to look for unlikely partnerships outside of your own industry sector, and pursue those partnerships to identify recovered source materials and viable markets for scrap materials within your own sector.
Do you have any examples?
When we’re looking to incorporate recycled materials into our products, it’s challenging because things like engineered thermoplastics aren’t really part of the mainstream recovery process for municipalities. So we depend upon feedstock materials that come from the beverage and other industries to meet our performance criteria.
In 2016, we worked on the world’s first TV made from polyketone, a plastic created from converting waste carbon monoxide produced by the oil refining sector into a durable material. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries recognized Samsung Electronics America that year with the Design for Recycling Award for our Curved Full HD TV.
What advice do you have for other sustainability leaders?
Three things. The first, which I mentioned, is opening up your blinders and looking broadly at cross-industry partnerships.
The second is advancing product performance while you implement an environmental performance feature. A couple years ago Samsung went to improve the performance of our LED technologies and discovered alternative materials that don’t contain cadmium. We improved a number of performance features of the LED product while reducing the environmental impact.
Finally I think it’s important to focus on the customer. Too often we’re in our own separate silos. A key to lifecycle thinking is designing products that help our customers be more productive and efficient in an environmentally responsible way.