How do you make electronics easier to recycle?
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And in an era concerned about humanity's hand in climate change, some see energy expenditure as the overarching issue. The average desktop computer and monitor require at least 10 times their mass in fuel to manufacture, compared with automobiles or refrigerators, which need only one to two times their weight. (Microchip production is the most energy-intensive industry ever, according to one study.) The smelting of bauxite ore to make aluminum requires 20 times more energy than melting down and reusing aluminum scrap.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's really a shame to throw away all that energy we've put into it," says Jeremy Gregory, a research scientist at MIT's Materials Systems Lab.
From a recycler's point of view, profit depends on keeping labor costs low. Ideally, the process would be entirely automated: Products would enter a shredder that would automatically separate the various materials – metals, plastic, glass. But many electronics contain toxic materials – batteries and LCDs, for example – that must first be removed, often by hand.
LCDs, which contain mercury, are notably time-consuming to disassemble. As a result, recyclers face a conundrum: Do you cut into profits by removing hazardous materials first, or do you shred the product whole, make more money – and possibly expose workers to toxic materials?
"We certainly would like it if it was easier to remove some of the hazardous material," says Mick Schum, president of WeRecycle! in Meriden, Conn. But "the biggest challenge in our industry is still a lack of standards or certification process for electronics recyclers."
One possible solution under discussion in Bonn: a manufacturer-provided "ingredients list" that would accompany products. The problem is that such a list might also reveal trade secrets.
Several companies have taken steps toward greater "recycle-ability." HP and Dell take back their old products for free, and many wireless phone companies recycle their cellphones. Last year, Nokia unveiled a cellphone that self- disassembles when exposed to high temperatures.
Active Disassembly Research Ltd. in Toronto, which worked on the Nokia project, specializes in such technology, developing screws, rivets, and glues that come undone when exposed to heat, microwaves, or lasers.
The key is to move away from "fast and nasty" designs that use too many clips and fasteners and move toward products that are easily disassembled in bulk, says Joseph Chiodo, chief executive of Active Disassembly Research, "The more robust we make these products, the less expensive they are to recycle."
Xerox, which leases, repairs, and eventually recycles its machines, is famous for just this sort of robust, modular design. Many wonder how to encourage more companies to do the same.
In 2003, the European Union instituted the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, making manufacturers responsible for the collection and disposal of electronics. California now requires materials to comply with a version of the EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances standard. The EU standard is widely credited with prompting the removal of lead from solder not only in Europe, but in the US as well. Materials purchased by the New York City government also must conform to the standard.
Also in the US, the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative is moving toward developing a framework for national recycling. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency released the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, a voluntary standard for green electronics aimed at encouraging recycle-friendly design.
Four US States – Maine, Maryland, Washington, and California – have laws requiring the collection of certain electronics. Washington State's program is the one to watch, according to Lloyd Hicks, a program director at INFORM, an environmental research organization in New York City. What makes it unique among the four is that manufacturers can choose between recycling their own products or having a central authority do it. "Connecting the manufacturers to the end of life is important," Mr. Hicks says, "You give them the opportunity to try and optimize."