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Circular economy

The basic CE idea is longevity. This can be achieved by extended product lifetime, product second life (refurbishment), parts re-use, and recycling. CE is heavily pushed, both, in the EU and the US.

The Circular Economy concept is necessary to reduce the amount of raw material and energy that is associated with any products and services. The main savings are projected to result from extended lifetime (incl. second life where applicable), full or partial / parts re-use, and optimized recycling. The latter must avoid downcycling by recovering close to 100% of all precious materials in best-achievable quality and purity. This obviously needs to be supported by respective eco-design aspects.

Circular economy is inherently based on business models that support keeping products in closed loops. This includes take-back and business schemes like leasing. As described earlier, this needs to be supported by (reverse) logistics that are optimized regarding CO2 footprint and cost (refer to ADVAnced Logistics in the Logistics and Suppliers chapter).

In the recent years, we implemented a number of smaller take-back and recycling processes especially in the UK (as one of our strongest business areas), and a large-scale refurbishment and recycling process in our main site in Meiningen, Germany, called Supplier Sale. In the UK, we implemented, on a daily-business basis, several smaller-scale processes (ranging to hundreds of related products per year) that address refurbishment and recycling. This does include third-party equipment. The processes also cover the Circular Economy business aspects of take-back and leasing (example: equipment leased for London Olympic games in 2012).

In addition to these customer-specific processes, we implemented a refurbishment / parts reuse / recycling process for equipment sent back to our site in Meiningen. Reasons for equipment being sent back include (but are not restricted to) commercial and maintenance returns. Altogether, they cater for substantial amounts and value of sent-back equipment. A process overview is shown in the following chart.

Supplier-Sale refurbishment and reuse process chart

Figure 6. Supplier-Sale refurbishment and reuse process

All equipment sent back is being analyzed for potential parts reuse and refurbish¬ment. This includes selling substantial amounts of components back to their suppliers. Systems or components without possibility for reuse are being professionally recycled by a contract WEEE recycler (located close to Meiningen, thus also minimizing truck-roll mileage). Depending on the degree of reuse potential, the components are sold back (Supplier Sale, New) or get into respective stocks for New, Refurbished or Spare parts. Since all equipment sent back is analyzed for reuse, the process ensures that reuse is extended to the maximum and that WEEE scrap going to landfill is minimized.

Most WDM equipment has long lifetime. It often serves 3-5 generations of client equipment, thus typically outperforming its clients (routers, switches, etc.). This lifetime is mainly enabled by modular system design. This allows easy upgrades, e.g., to the next per-channel bit-rate generation. However, it also necessitates that any controllers, backplanes etc. are dimensioned in the beginning of any new system generation such that they can support the required long lifetime. This limits lifetime and lifetime extension since over time, it leads to increasing inflexibility and finally obsolescence.

Further limitations regarding lifetime extension, reuse and second life result from ageing electronics, functionalities becoming obsolete (what was 10 Gb/s years ago now is 100 Gb/s), and the fact that electronics (ASICs, FPGAs, etc.) quickly become much more energy-efficient (so that their replacement becomes net-positive in the LCA sense). It is therefore doubtful that WDM systems’ lifetime can be substantially increased to beyond 10-15 years.

For similar reasons, the concept of parts reuse is also limited. Therefore, the remaining relevant CE concept is optimized electronics recycling. It aims at getting back close to 100% of all valuable materials from Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) in best available purity. To achieve this, manual disassembly of WEEE systems into the respective material groups has so far been paramount for optimized recycling yield. 

An example of a recycling-yield analysis of WDM WEEE is shown in Figure 7. In this case, the respective systems had been manually disassembled into (only) five different material fractions or sub-systems (Al heat sinks, batteries, Fe screws and chassis, all plastics, and the printed circuit boards containing ASICs, ICs, FPGAs, etc.). 

Recycling analysis chart

Figure 7. WDM WEEE recycling analysis example

The analysis shown in Figure 7 revealed that the material yield – after manual disassembly – is high enough to cover the cost of any reverse logistics that become necessary in order to re-collect the respective systems. This allows commercially viable recycling even in cases where take-back and recycling have not been considered in the original contracts.