Sustainable Electronics

(Full Version)

Electronic consumption and with it electronic waste (e-waste) production has grown largely over the last two decades. However, it still remains largely unknown how much and what kinds of electronic products are repaired, recycled or wasted frequently (Balde et al. 2017).⁠

Electronics by German law are defined as any product that is designed for a use of up to 1000 volt alternating voltage or up to 1500 volt direct current voltage and that requires a stream of electric energy or an electromagnetic field to work as designed. This includes all devices that are used to create, monitor, use and transfer electric energy – so not only typical devices such as TV, smartphones or laptops are included, but also all cables and voltmeter (Bundesministerium der Justiz und für Verbraucherschutz, 2015, ElektroG §3).

Although all electronic products sold in Germany can be given back to the manufacturer or vendor for recycling, an unknown amount of unused or dead devices are either not given back at all or given to alternative recycling facilities. Illegal e-waste collection or stealing e-waste is the first step in a row of illegal trafficking and recycling of electronics to foreign countries, which lead to environmental and social hazards.

Problems of electronic waste from an ecological perspective

These problems often start during production of the different pieces of electronic devices – for example when minerals are mined for later production in post-conflict or war zones, like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or Rwanda (Autesserre 2012). The reason is that mining for rare earths and metals often requires the removal of tons of earth and the use of chemicals, poisoning the water streams (Akormedi et al. 2013; Amankwaa et al. 2017; Asampong et al. 2015). ⁠⁠Many electronic devices contain metals like lead or plastics with toxic additives that get released during the burning of e-waste (Amankwaa et al. 2017).

This becomes a problem again when dead or still functioning electronics are given to recycling. While strict recycling rules within the European Union are present, it is often not economically feasible to repair or even recycle the electronics. They are marked as e-waste and exported to other countries, like Ghana or Nigeria, for disposal (Balde et al. 2017; Hoeltl et al. 2017)⁠

Since this “recycling” process includes the manual extraction of metal parts from the plastic, e-waste is often burned without safety equipment for the workers, which not only can lead to toxic air pollution and metals leaching into the ground but also health impact for the workers. Illegal e-waste dumps – like Agbogbloshie near Ghana’s capital Accra, that once was a lagoon – are now dead zones, with water bodies filled with garbage and parts of e-waste (Asampong et al. 2015).

Beside this extreme and very visible environmental destruction, e-waste dismantling and “recycling” facilities can also be located in living areas. This is for example the case in China which is one of the largest e-waste importers of the EU, beside African countries like Ghana and Nigeria. Air pollution and acidification of water bodies are one of many possible consequences. (Sander & Schilling 2010a, 2010b; Balde et al. 2017; Li et al. 2011).

Until today, electronic devices cannot be properly recycled which means that either through dismantling but mostly through shredding only a selected range of the most precious and high-quality metals can be sorted out. Consequently, precious and limited resources are wasted and end up in low quality use cases, like asphalt, or unfiltered in the environment as toxins (Asopong et al. 2015; Proske & Jaeger-Erben 2019)⁠.

Problems of electronic waste from judicial and social perspectives

Judicial problems arising from E-Waste

The European Union has created an e-waste guideline with basic principles that every member state has to implement into their own laws. For Germany this means that issues of electronic waste are considered in the electronic waste law “ElektroG” and circular economy law “KrWG”. Both categorise e-waste by certain criteria and with it create rules for the minimum amount that has to be recycled. Most importantly for consumers, the ElektroG allows every person who has bought an electric product to return it free of charge to larger collecting stations offered by local authorities of the city. Smaller collecting stations must also be available either from the vendor or the manufacturer (Bundesministerium der Justiz und für Verbraucherschutz 2012, 2015)⁠.

Theoretically, recycling must take place in Germany. However, tons of e-waste are illegally shipped to African and Asian countries for recycling instead. Since there is no international control mechanism, it depends on their legislation to regulate the e-waste import and recycling. Until today, e-waste can be exported to Ghana, China or Nigeria while illegal recycling sites are not examined so that not only environmental problems, but also many social and health problems occur (Balde et al. 2017; Hoeltl et al. 2017).

Social problems arising from E-Waste

Therefore, child labor can occur, and safety equipment and adequate payment is often not existent, starting in the production cycle of the electronic products and continuing through the recycling phase, like in the production and recycling sectors of China. Since the recycling process includes the burning and mechanical destruction by hand, many environmental issues also directly impact the workers’ health. They can lead to asthma or other respiratory tract symptoms, cancer, headaches and skin burning from open fire (Amankwaa et al. 2107; Asapong et al. 2015; Akormedi et al. 2013; Li et al. 2011)⁠.

Recycling facilities or waste dumps like Agbogbloshie near Ghana’s capital Accra, once place of a lagoon, have turned into a waste dump for illegal e-waste exports, e.g. from Germany, which exports over between 93.000 t and 216.000 t per year of e-waste (Sander & Schilling 2010a, 2010b)⁠. Since environmental and social safety laws are not as strict in the import countries compared to the export countries, the e-waste gets lost from official statistics and can then be sold for dismantling in waste dumps such as Agbogbloshie. This has created a large unofficial working sector for thousands of people, including children. Recycling is often the only option for income for those families and also refugees and therefore has also some social and economic benefits for these people – at the cost of their health and possible juristic consequences of working illegally (Asampong et al. 2015).

Looking at this issue with all its facets, we have developed a research question that focuses on the local level: How can the longevity of technological devices at a university be achieved? By that, we want to show the possibilities that an institution (and the individuals belonging to that institution) in a rather small city in Germany has, facing such a complex, multi-scalar, global issue with a multitude of effects.

This is why electronics often end up in Sub-Saharan Countries of Africa, like Ghana or Nigeria, where electric devices are burned without safety equipment to get to certain metals, like copper. During those processes, the environment is damaged and often totally destroyed near larger recycling facilities, because of fires, toxic waste and toxic air.

However, electronic products usually have a negative impact on humans and the environment even before they end up as e-waste. Much like in the unofficial recycling industry, minerals like gold or coltan are also needed to produce electronic devices. The exploitation of these minerals in politically unstable countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has resulted in slavery and brutal working conditions, as well as environmental pollution through large mining activities and mercury pollution to clean the gold.

Today there are only a few sustainable sources of minerals for phones, like Fairtrade gold, while the majority of phones, computers, screens, refrigerators or radios are built using conventional materials. The latter rely on environmental destruction during the sourcing of minerals, bad working conditions during the construction to keep cost down and finally the cheap disposal of old hardware, as recycling with European Standards does not provide enough profit.

Circular Economy – an approach to tackle linear consumption patterns

Since the early days of industrialization there has been an established pattern in the industrial economy which is a linear model of resource consumption. It follows quite an easy logic pattern: buy, use, dispose.

A system which is based on these rules entails significant losses of value and negative effects all along the material chain. While looking at electronic devices one can state that even though they are made from durable materials the average time of use is relatively short. “Current disposal practices mean much of the energy, resources and value embodied in electronic products is lost, generating vast amounts of waste in the process” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2018, p. 3).

Furthermore, the system relies on easily accessible resources and energy. It requires a reality of unlimited resources which of course does not exist.

Additionally, the linear consumption system implies both, environmental and health impacts at the production and disposal ends. The production process requires vast amounts of energy and mining of hazardous substances which often happens under dangerous working conditions. Also, the disposal or recycling of the products exposes people to toxic chemicals especially when electronic waste is shipped into the global South where the products are not treated properly.

So, there is a need to find alternatives that challenge the entire operating system. One approach of tackling those linear consumption patterns is the idea of a circular economy. This is an industrial system which is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It “aims to maximize the usefulness of products, components and materials across the entire lifecycle” (Reuter et al. 2018, p. 68).

Instead of following the ‘end-of-life’ concept it focuses on restoration (including reuse) and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and within this the business model. All of that is based on the use of renewable energies and the elimination of toxic chemicals during the use. It therefore benefits not only the environment but also the economy and society.

The circular economy is characterized by tight component and product cycles and differentiates between consumable and durable components of a product. With doing so it sets itself apart from the conventional approach to dispose of products and even from recycling practices where large amounts of the embedded energy and labor in the products are lost.

For our purposes let’s focus on the durables of technological products such as computers and smartphones. Durables are designed to be reused from the start for the simple reason that they are made from technical nutrients (e.g. metals or plastics) which should not be exposed to the biosphere. The idea of the circular economy here is to replace the concept of a consumer with that of a user which means that durable products should not be bought-used-disposed anymore but leased, rented or shared whenever possible. The idea is to implement functional services so that retailers act as service providers who do not sell their products but their use, the development of take-back systems, and the design of product and business models which consider durable products and facilitate refurbishment.

Basic Principles (Differences and Hierarchy)

The basic principles of the circular economy can be explained by – like its name already points at – circles. But there is a difference between the inner and outer circles which you can see on the figure below.

The Circular Economy Chart
The Circular Economy (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2013, p. 24)

The inner circles refer to minimizing the material usage compared to the linear production system. The tighter the circles the better because then most of the product’s value and utility are preserved. The less a product must be changed in reuse, refurbishment, and re-manufacturing, the faster it can return into use and the higher the potential savings on materials, labor, energy, and capital embedded in the product.

The inner circles refer to the concepts of reuse and refurbishment. The reuse of goods basically means that a product is used in its original form or with some small changes for the same purpose again.

Product refurbishment can be seen as one step further. It is about resetting the product into a good working condition by repairing or replacing major components and to update the appearance of a product. It has the potential to extend the overall product longevity by the same amount. Component re-manufacturing does not recover the old product but takes out the functioning and reusable parts of a used product to rebuild them into a new one.

Furthermore, it is very important to emphasize the power of circling longer. This refers to the value creation from keeping products, components, and materials longer in use for example via multiple refurbishments.

The outer circle is characterized by the principle of recycling. This refers mainly to the concept of material recycling where all the materials are recovered for their original purpose (excluding the used energy) at the end of a product’s usable life. Talking of the technological devices where some rare earth and precious metals are used in the production process and their limited availability of these resources, the recycling of these essential materials has become more and more important.

While comparing the outer and inner circles with each other one must emphasize that the current recycling processes are rather loose and include long cycles that rather reduce material utility. Even though recycling is gladly referred to by sustainability scientists we must look at its actual impact and why it is not an easy solution option. Especially recycling of complex consumer products which are not made of a single material requires quite a complex combination of steps such as dismantling, shredding, physical sorting, and other final treatment processing methods. For instance, there are more than 40 elements in a mobile phone which would need to be recovered.

Throughout the recycling process materials are lost at every phase and the overall recycling efficiency depends on several aspects. Therefore, sacrifices are often made between valuable and less valuable ones. That is why “it is not possible to reclaim all of the original materials used to make a smartphone” (Reuter et al. 2018, p.77). Additionally, recycling does not mean no environmental impact. The whole process also consumes a lot of energy. It is just important that this is less than for the primary production.

Applying the circular economy concept with special emphasis on the inner circles on electronic devices means that they should be enabled to cycle not only once but potentially multiple times through a product life cycle – especially because of the high value of their embedded components.

  • Firstly, this implies that they are kept in use for as long as possible by the original user.
  • Secondly, that the used products are refurbished professionally as often as possible so that new users find new value and utility in them.
  • And thirdly, that at the end of the process specialists take care of remanufacturing all the valuable components of the electronic device before they separate and recycle the materials.

This means that we need to increase the rate at which products are collected to reuse their resource inputs to the maximum degree. “A transition scenario in which collection rates are increased to 50%, and in which 60% of collected devices are ultimately refurbished would not only save material input costs of 350 million € per year but also 100 thousand t of CO2 emissions” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2013, p. 44).

The concept of a Repair Café

Repair cafés  are defined as places where people can go with their broken products and get help at fixing them without having to pay for it (Kannengießer 2018). They are organized by volunteers who often have know-how in repairing from their working context. They often take place monthly and are complemented by an offer of food and drinks mostly based on donations.

Repair Cafés can offer a solution to the problem of electronic waste for multiple reasons: On the one hand, of course the devices can be repaired and do not need to be replaced by new ones which leads to a massive benefit for the environment which has already been discussed above. On the other hand, people are incentivized to consider the option of repair since they don’t have to pay for it. In this way it is also possible to transfer knowledge which enables the visitors to do the repairs on their own in the future. From another perspective this practice of repairing can also establish a deeper connection of the consumers to their products and lets them experience self-efficacy without being dependent on the manufacturer.

Existing Structures and Best Practices

The concept was first established in the Netherlands in 2009 and has spread to Germany and many other countries since then (Kannengießer 2018). As of 2020 there are over 800 registered repair cafés in German speaking countries. Thanks to this website it is also possible to make an estimation about the impact of repair cafés. It is run by the foundation “Anstiftung” which also manages the network of repair initiatives in Germany. The website offers data on 36 initiatives that measured the devices that could be repaired and of those that could not be repaired. According to this data, approximately 41 t of CO2 emissions have been prevented and 535 t of soil did not have to be extracted thanks to the repair cafés. This equals 190.999 airplane kilometers and the yearly resource consumption of 21 people. About 60-70 % of attempts to repair products were successful (Grewe 2017). This underlines the potential of this concept when it comes to extending the lifespan of electronic products.

Existing Initiatives in Lüneburg

If you are interested in participating in repairing devices by yourself, there are already several opportunities in Lüneburg.

On the one hand there are “classic” repair cafés:

Reparaturcafé Lüneburg
Haagestraße 4, 21335 Lüneburg
VHS - Volkshochschule, Eingangsbereich
Reparatur Café Adendorf
Bültenweg 18, 21365 Adendorf

For specific dates and further information, you can check the following website:

Additionally, there is the FabLab Lüneburg, which is not a repair café but a creative place for different occasions. However, they have expertise in 3D printing which might help you with your repair project:

How could a specific concept appealing to students look like?

Considering all the resources available in Lüneburg, it might be useful to unite them for a repair event at the Leuphana campus. We think that there would be quite some demand from the student side and synergies with existing initiatives and structures could be used. It is also in line with the guiding principles of the university in terms of sustainability.

The event could be complemented with the sharing of used electronic products and accessories. This might be useful because some students might need accessories like cables or monitors after moving out from their parents.

Maybe this topic of repairing could even fit into the responsibility module of the Leuphana semester.

Societal Implications

The repair café bears and demands specific societal implications. Looking at the word sustainable consumption considering repair cafes from a societal perspective, it addresses both: sustainability, and consumption. The focus on consumption can be understood as the (collective) behavior of no consumption or less consumption. Looking at sustainability, repair cafes serve as a material space to meet and exchange about (non-) wastefulness, resource scarcity, affluence, and best practices in the field of repairing.

All these aspects change the perspective considering materialism. Many peoples’ lifestyles are considered materialistic, meaning that the acquisition of material goods is of importance and promises well-being. For example, in the hip-hop scene, it is part of the standard repertoire to brag about the fastest cars and the newest smartphone. The repair café changes this. The relationship to your electronic device develops with the process of repairing (Gregson, 2009, p. 3). What is this relationship exactly? For example, it makes a difference whether you use your tablet for having video conferences with your closest friends and family, or as a cutting board. Therefore, you always have a relationship to any device evolving with the way you use, which also determines the value it has to you.

But usually we do not value electronic devices that much, as we live in a so-called “throw-away society”, many people throw away their electronic devices if it not working or has a little defect and just get a new one.  So, with this being the norm, we also unlearn to repair and maintain our own belongings. The repair café counteracts with and engages to develop “consumer competence” to repair (Gregson, 2009, p.19). This also leads to a valuation of your device and its resources since you grapple with the different parts and learn about your electronic device (Gregson, 2009, pp. 18-19). And maybe you think twice how you treat your electronic device if you are the one having to repair it. You become more respectful and thoughtful about electronic devices once you know how to repair it and what is actually in it.

Knowing this, does not actually make you do it. As you maybe know from your daily life, knowledge does not necessarily lead to appropriate behavior (Jonas, 2016, p. 350). Maybe you know that feeling when you know you have had enough chocolate, but it is so tasty..!

So, the repair café as a place where people meet and chat, is a good opportunity to maybe overcome a little bit that gap between knowledge and behavior since there are very low barriers and a friendly and social environment.

Also, the idea of repairing together as a community can be understood as some kind of protest (Grewe, 2017, p.149). Thinking about the throw-away society, people being engaged in a repair café decide to resist this and make their devices last longer. Many electronic devices are considered to designed as “build to break”(Grewe, 2017, p. 163), which people active in a repair café disagree with- the repairing is legitimized from and environmental perspective (Grewe, 2017, 186) but also, it is a viable option from a financial perspective. So, the repair café serves a platform for people who disagree with the throw-away society and have a space where they can turn their ideas and criticism into action on a local level, since the overall problem of throw-away society seems rather big and diffuse (Grewe, 2017, p. 167). It is a good way to transform your and maybe your community’s way of thinking about production cycles and problems stemming from over-consumption and a throw-away society with low barriers.

The Repair Café is therefore a place for education, where is the chance to learn new cool stuff- hand-on and environmental knowledge, as well as social skills. Helpers communicate their skills to you and you can learn about your belongings. Here, a critical point is, that this knowledge circulation process doesn’t always take place because it happens frequently that the volunteers do the repair work for the help seeking persons. (Kannengießer, 2017, p. 291 f.) A question of good communication! So be sure and highlight that your visit is about to improve your skill.

The helpers usually are volunteers with motivation and some of them have an expertise to enrich the joint project. Most volunteers are between 40-60 years old and act as organizers, repair experts or helpers who help to embellish the event with baked cake or brewed coffee. (Grewe, 2017, p. 172) So it is actually a nice experience to visit or work in a Repair Café, high chance that you’ll like it!

Further, Kannengießer (2018) writes in his article that repair cafés are more useful for clothes and bikes as for electronics, because here exists a large gap of knowledge to bypass for the experts to communicate to laymen. Looking at Lüneburg, the Fab Lab, existing repair cafes in the region as well as individuals with experience in repairing, and certain institutes and initiatives at the university could help bridge this gap of knowledge.

 And one way or the other: It forms a space for a community of practice and also a networking space for diverse initiatives. (Grewe, 2017, p.174)

The repair café can also be understood as a platform to foster environmental awareness and put into practice. Thinking about the aspects of resources, and e-waste mentioned earlier, repairing seems like a good opportunity to prevent this. But also, it can be understood as a normative practice against affluence and wastefulness, where people come together and support each other (Grewe, 2017, p. 188). Also, profound decisions can be made whether this electronic device belongs to the before mentioned inner or outer circle of the circular economy, by consulting with experts in the repair café. By that, participants develop an environmental awareness making them value resources more and critically assess affluence and wastefulness.


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