Mountains of outdated electronics are rising worldwide, and a United Nations-led initiative launched in Bonn, Germany Wednesday is trying to set standards on how to recycle it.
Known as "e-scrap" or "e-waste," discarded electronics are one of the fastest-growing segments of municipal garbage, piling up three times faster than other refuse. Some of this waste is dumped in landfills, where the toxic substances it contains may leach into groundwater. But 80 percent ends up in developing countries where labor is cheap enough to make the harvesting of materials profitable. There, crude extraction methods and an absence of regulations expose workers to a host of toxic substances.
The UN initiative, called Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP), includes industry, environmental, academic, and government groups. Discussions revolve around how to make electronics easier to recycle.
Modern electronics are so complex that they don't lend themselves to speedy disassembly. That means more labor, more labor means higher costs, and high costs make e-scrap recycling less attractive.
If products could be designed for easy dismantling, recycling would be profitable not only in poor countries, but in the United States and European Union nations as well.
One way to bring this about, experts say, is to hold firms responsible for their products from the beginning to the end of their life spans. Some companies, including Xerox, HP, and Dell, have proactively established recycling programs for their outdated products. Legislation mandating e-waste recycling is already in place in the EU and in four US states.
But as growing demand causes prices of various materials in today's electronics to skyrocket, some argue that recycling is profitable now and necessary in order to keep rare materials in circulation.
"There is this urgent demand," says Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of the StEP Initiative, "to establish better technologies in order to harvest valuable resources and to train people in developing countries" where much of today's e-scrap goes for reprocessing.
The accelerating pace of technological innovation itself is fueling the growth of e-waste. Early personal computers lasted an average of five years; now they become outdated in about two. According to a US government report, Americans "retire" 130 million cellphones yearly, after typically using them for 1-1/2 years.
The UN expects the amount of e-waste generated worldwide every year to soon reach 40 million tons, enough to fill a line of garbage trucks stretching halfway around the world.
Consumer electronics contain many potentially toxic substances, from lead and mercury to flame retardants and PCBs. The EPA estimates that e-waste accounts for only 1 to 4 percent of municipal waste. But according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, it's responsible for 70 percent of the heavy metals in landfills, including 40 percent of all lead. (Cathode-ray tubes found in old televisions and computer monitors contain four to eight pounds of lead.)
E-waste also contains precious metals that have dramatically increased in value recently. The price of indium, a rare metal element used in liquid crystal displays (LCDs), has increased sixfold in the past five years. (Natural-resource-poor Japan gets half of its indium supply by recycling imported e-scrap.) The price of ruthenium, used in hard drives, has increased sevenfold. In 2006, the average price of circuit board e-scrap was 46 percent higher than in 2005.
"If we look to some of the contents in electronic goods, the scarcity is very alarming," says StEP's Mr. Kuehr.
But many doubt whether the scarcity of materials alone will be enough to drive the recycling and mining of e-scrap.
"The more precious materials you have in a product, the more likely you're going to have a research project to try to get the precious materials out of the product," says Timothy Gutowski, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Products are moving away from recycling as fast as they can."
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.
"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."