SR article

E-waste:Description of the sociotechnical system

In the 21st century it is impossible to separate science and technology with the contemporary society. These three aspects keep changing and interacting as an integrated system – the sociotechnical system. Taking iPhone for instance, the technological innovation of the “capacitive touch screen” is a creation highly dependent on the necessity of the social environment. On the contrary, it is not solely an individual desire to seek for an operationally faster and computer-like multifunctional mobile phone, but the result of the public demand – the demand and response of the sociotechnical system.

Taking a deeper look to the ‘system’, the main elements included can be concluded in three aspects. The first is new knowledge and technical products; the second is the individual and organizational sectors responsible for produce, use of new knowledge and technical products; and finally the place and tools that enable the production, adoption, use of knowledge and technical products [1]. The term ‘technology’ refers to the practical application of knowledge in a particular area. In this case, technology provides comfort and convenience to our daily social life but in return the e-waste produced is of adverse effect to our future generations. Currently Apple is forced to enter the recycling business due to the stress from public feedback and press releases [2]. It is time that knowledge has to take action to save the problem created by technology, and to strike a new balance for the sociotechnical system.

In the following lifecycles of the contemporary, the material, the sociotechnical and the new vision of our new cycle, we will have an in-depth analysis towards the e-waste treatments and how we can perform a reposition of one element of a system and an addition of one element into the system which could possibly significantly enhancing the circular economy for the future development without sacrificing the needs of the next generations.

 Table of content

1. Full overview of E-waste in Den Haag

        -Waste streams

        -Sociotechnical system

2.The New Life Cycle


1. Full overview of E-waste in Den Haag

E-waste is a problem that keeps growing in current society, but why? E-waste can be recycled very well. The means and technology exist. Greenpeace and other organizations that keep an eye on nature, pollution and waste, recognize a problem however [3]. Humanity creates so much waste that we cannot keep up anymore. The proper funds aren’t invested in fixing the problem either.


To analyse the situation and see where any problems are now or where any might arise, the current lifecycle of e-waste in Den Haag is analyzed. Of the lifecycle analysis an explanation and picture can be found in chapters 1.1 and 1.2. To get a clear view on the social and technical system, both are explained separately. Chapter 1.1 will look into the materialistic and technical side of the cycle and chapter 1.2 will look into the social side. When looking at the full cycle as a whole, the lifecycle can be divided in a couple of parts. Each will be explained in turn in each chapter. The parts are:

  • Materials
  • Design, manufacture and distribution
  • Consumer
  • Waste
  • Recycling


1.1 Waste streams

The technical and materialistic waste streams are very difficult to describe when looking at e-waste. This is because it is such a broad term that contains so many different materials and providers [4]. The following five phases will explain most of the material livecycle of e-waste in Den Haag.



To list every material and way of procurement is way too much. E-waste is so broad that it is easy to imagine every element on the periodic table is used in the lifecycle of electronics, one way or another. The way of procuring the materials is also just as broad. It can be from mining to a special chemical process.


The figures below show some of the main or most valuable materials in E-waste of the Netherlands and the materials to be found in different kinds of e-waste [4]. The thing to notice is that gold and palladium are very rare to find, but together result in almost the most value. However, they are almost only exclusive to computers. These items are already recycled often because of this, but other waste also needs some attention, although the business model is less profitable.


Materials in Dutch e-waste and their value [4]

Materials to be found in different kinds of e-waste [4]


Design, manufacture and distribution

To make the materials into usable electronics a big step has to be taken. This is facilitated by the companies we know and love, like: apple, samsung, philips, etc. There are literally thousands of different more. They look at the new technologies and demands of the community to design what we want.


After the design they enlist their own manufacturing plants or the well known chinese sweatshops to make the products. Often materials are first refined to what the product asks

Then the different components are made at the different manufacturing plants. These components are gathered and assembled to the final product. Between all these steps a lot of logistics are applied. The most optimal situation would be if each step in creating the product is at the same facility, but resource locations, prices of labor and the final destination make this impossible.



There is no data available of Den Haag specifically, because there are so many different parties involved. Different distributors sell different products and different organizations handle the waste afterwards.However, the NVMP (Nederlandse Verwijdering Metalelektro Producten) is an association in the netherlands that has researched the subject in the Netherlands [5]. The exact data sets aren’t given, but revealing conclusions are made. On average each person in the Netherlands sheds 23.7 kilos per person/year. Combining this with the amount of citizens of Den Haag, which is 495.000, the total amount of e-waste generated in Den Haag each year is 11,7 KiloTons [6].



All those electronics turn into waste at some point. The NVMP has also looked into this part of the lifecycle [5]. Of the 23.7 kilos of waste 2.7 is taken back directly by the supplier. This means for instance that apple takes back and recycles the old phone you bought from them. This can be translated to 12%, 10% or 2.3 kilo goes directly to the trash, however.


In the Netherlands we have made many improvements in the last couple of years. Lots of e-waste gathering initiatives have risen up and dispose of the waste properly. One of the most well known is probably Wecycle. They and their affiliates gather around 7.5 kilos, which is 32%. In the area of Den Haag there are numerous locations which are part of this initiative and can therefore confirm proper recycling. Collection spots for large electronics can be found in the first picture. The most notable is the Binkhorst in the middle of the picture. Small items can be delivered at far more locations, for example stores, municipal depots and even farmyards [9].


Drop off  point large electronic waste [9]


Drop off  point small electronic waste [9]


The final 11.2 kilos, or 46%, is unaccounted for. Most will probably be taken by unregistered recycling companies. These do recycle, but are not as strictly controlled and we can’t be sure what happens with the waste. All this data can be seen more clearly in the picture below.


E-waste flow in the Netherlands [5]


The european union has set a goal to get the registered recycling of e-waste to 65% by the end of 2021. This means the current 32% needs to double. The goal is tracked and supported by the national WEEE registry [7].


The goal can be reached easily if the 46% would just join with Wecycle and do their recycling legally and registered, but organizations like Greenpeace have uncovered that they, and even some of the registered recycling companies, don’t use proper ways to handle their e-waste [4]. Greenpeace and some others have published a rapport that shows that millions of tons of e-waste is still exported to third world countries. This violates the ban on exporting waste set in 2000. China alone already receives 8 million tons of e-waste each year. Countries like India and Africa are suspected of receiving even more [8]. There is no way of seeing how much is from Den Haag, however. One of the main reasons mentioned for this problem is that e-waste is dangerous and costs a lot of manpower to disassemble.


Europe, so including the netherlands exports around 47% in this way. The third world countries directly landfill it in 20% of the cases. Because of lack of capacity. The rest goes on the heap of eventually being recycled, but that won’t be for at least a decade. In the meantime, the surrounding area and population slowly get poisoned.



When the  products are recycled properly however they go through a number of steps [10]. They will be explained below and shown in the lifecycle image.


1 - Picking and shedding

First the e-waste is manually sorted into categories. This could be for instance, hazardous or difficult versus normal electronics or big electronics like refrigerators versus small electronics like cellphones. The most important part in this phase is checking for any electronics that can still function and be used.


2 - Disassembly

The electronics that are broken and sorted are then disassembled and sorted into material categories. This is the most labour intensive part of the whole recycling process and one of the main reasons why it is shipped to third world countries.


3 - Shredding

The materials are then shredded into smaller bits, so it can be transported more easily and, the individual materials aren't stuck together anymore and they can be processed by the separation machines.


4 - Metals separation

The small bits are spread out on a conveyor belt by use of a shake table and then passed underneath a magnet. The magnet will attract most metals. Other non-magnetic metals can be detected and separated by specialized equipment. The retrieved metals can be directly reused in production of fresh components.


5 - Water separation

The rest of the materials will be separated in a water bath. Certain materials will float or drop down to the bottom. Different materials drop less fast or faster, which results in a fairly accurate separation.


6 - Further recycling

Hazardous materials like batteries or lead-glass are separated in step 1 or 2 and send to specialized companies for recycling. Some are send to chemical waste dumps.

Circuitry that proved too tough and couldn't be processed by the standard procedures are also send to specialized companies.


1.2 Sociotechnical system

The waste streams discussed previously don’t happen on their own. There is a whole socio technical system behind it. Who controls what resource, who decides where it goes and who uses what? More questions can be asked. This chapter looks into those aspects of the lifecycle. It will be done again along the same five phases.



Materials and other resources used in the production of electronic equipment are often mined or otherwise produced by big companies [11]. Sometimes they are affiliated with a certain country's government, but most are international and work in associations. Some examples are: norilsk nickel, anglo platinum, Lonmin PLC, Stillwater mining, etc.


The mines they gather resources from can be found all over the world [11].Palladium has large deposits in the philippines.Iron is found almost everywhere, just like aluminium. Copper is mostly mined in Chile, Mexico or Indonesia. More can be easily named.


Design, manufacture and distribution

The first step of any electronic device is the science behind it. New discoveries can be accidental or on purpose. Some have been made by individuals, companies or governments. In Universities or backyards. The list goes on.


The new technology is then used mostly by large companies like: Apple, Samsung, Philips and more. They get demands of the users and then design a product that complies to the rules and is within budget.


The design is often manufactured in separate components, which are assembled afterwards. Some of the biggest manufacturing companies are: Foxconn in Taiwan,

Tronicszone in India, Jabil in USA, Foxconn international holding in China or others [11].


When the product is finished it will be sold and transported to the stores or sold directly through online shopping. After this step we can find the products ready to be consumed in the stores all around the world.



This is where we, the consumers, come into play. We buy the products, which in turn finances the design and manufacture of new products. It is not only the ordinary citizen that is part of this, but the whole world. The government, companies, or others. Actually everybody in modern countries. This is how important these devices have become.


When the product breaks it can be repaired them. And when the consumer doesn’t want it anymore it can be sold again.



In the end everything ends up as waste. There are independent recycling companies and collection agencies that collect the waste. Most are controlled by the government or need to comply to european regulations. In Den Haag the largest in Den haag is de Binkhorst [12]. Some waste is gathered by the companies that provide the products. They have their own take back system and take and recycle their own items. Recently there have been more and more initiatives that try to advocate proper waste disposal aswell, like Wecycle [4].



When the items are taken back by the company, the recycling is done by themselves. Otherwise, the proper recycling is done by companies specialized in e-waste, like Novi Iskar in Bulgaria. This is the largest facility of its kind in Eastern Europe.


Improper handling of e-waste is however a big problem [3]. This is done by some unregulated recycling companies or by illegal businesses. Improper handling of e-waste often results in it being send to companies in third world countries, like: Desco electronic recyclers in afrika, Karma recycling in India, Baidu recycle in China or others [13]. Some do a decent job in recycling, but most get too much and can’t handle the amount. The problems stack on top of each other and the society around the waste is affected seriously. The normal citizens are often affected most and can get seriously poisoned. In return they have a job, but according to western standards this isn’t enough by far.  


Sociotechnical system

In conclusion, it can be said that a lot is handled by companies, but the consumer stays the solid goal and they decide what path of the cycle will be taken. Either by buying the proper items or giving it to a proper documented recycling company.


The next picture will show the lifecycle of e-waste and its sociotechnical system.

2. The New Life Cycle

Now that we know the complete lifecycle both in material waste streams and the sociotechnical system, we can analyse it to identify why it currently isn’t working in a circular way. After that we can formulate our own vision for improving it and possibly get a circular waste stream for e-waste in Den Haag.


The first lifecycle shown in chapter 1.1 was about the material waste streams. It showed that e-waste can be handled in a circular way, but it isn’t done all the time. The second lifecycle in chapter 1.2 shined some light on the possible reasons why this is. The problem lies both at the start of the product manufacturing and at the end of the use.


Designers and manufacturers don’t use recycled materials that often. They rather use more high quality, freshly mined, cheaper materials or are just not aware of where they get it. Their business plan just doesn't require it. It is more profitable to let people buy new products all the time instead of doing the extra  effort in the design, which could make products more durable, made from recycled materials or have a generally longer lifecycle.


On the other side of the lifecycle, the consumers and recycling companies have the choice of where they put their waste. Some companies, which results in around half the waste, follow the correct path and spend the extra time and money in proper recycling, which is circular. The rest however go for the easier and cheaper option. They export the waste, which is often a finite path. Who could blame them? It is better for their business plan. The important thing is, however, that it is not better for the environment.

Vision of the future of e-waste

Some things can be changed to improve the e-waste situation in Den haag. A vision is developed with the information gathered through the lifecycle. It isn’t a vision that fills any holes in the cycle, because theoretically there aren't any. The vision will make the existing cycle more attractive and profitable.


As explained before the problem is that there is an easier and cheaper way of getting rid of the e-waste. This is mainly because disassembling the products in western countries will cost too much in manpower, which the profits of the materials can’t make up. Therefore we suggest that the users help start the recycling process by disassembling the products themselves. This could for instance be done in recycling centres scattered around Den Haag, where classes are given on waste, recycling and disassembling. The equipment and space to disassemble is provided as well. The centre could even be a perfect location to have second hand or repair shops to sell or repair any decent product. We have called this centre the Phoenix reborn and can be found in the vision lifecycle. The vision would extend the life of the electronics significantly and the kickstart to the recycling process will make it far cheaper and therefore a far better strategy for electronic companies. In other words, The green arrows in the lifecycle will be enhanced by suppressing the subjects highlighted with red.


Getting a proper business strategy for the centre is tough however. The materials, repair and second hand shop can make money, but convincing the users to put the extra effort into their waste isn’t easy. A small amount of money can be given or even a discount on new products to incentivize the process.


On the other side of the cycle, in the design phase, improvements could also be made. These improvements aren’t within the borders of Den Haag, but are important to advocate nonetheless. Electronics should be easier to disassemble to lessen the costs of recycling even more and make it easier for citizens to perform. Electronics also shouldn’t have to be renewed completely if there is only one part that is improved. Electronics should be upgradable. This will lessen the waste created by electronics.


To get this change in electronics design through to the major companies is almost impossible, however, becauses they will lose money on it. Regulations and pressure from the community could make it a reality in the far future.

3. References


















All rights reserved