Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD
The ugly side of our electronics industry is the often dangerous and toxic byproducts and waste from the creation of electronic products and their disposal. E-waste doesn’t have to be a problem; it can be a renewable resource if we manage it properly. Americans generate million of tons of e-waste every year, and only about a quarter of that is recycled.
Recycling isn’t a new concept, people have been re-using materials and products since the first hand axe was invented. Some products like steel (the most recycled material on earth). According to the Steel Recycling Institute, in each of the past 50 years, more than 50 percent of the steel produced in this country has been recycled through the steelmaking process.
Steel refining is also a very sophisticated product with a very complex and dangerous manufacturing process. So why is steel #1? Frankly, it is because recycling a metal like steel is easy to do. Raw ore and finished steel scrap can both be thrown into the furnace. The recycling process is part of the manufacturing process, hence ridiculously easy to do.
That is unfortunately not the case in electronics. A cell phone is chock-full of extremely valuable (and sometimes conflict) materials that cost tremendous sums of money for both the raw material and the manufacturing process. The problem with gadgets is that these materials are bound up in a matrix with other metals and minerals, plastics and glass. Separating the mix is so onerous that many simply discard their broken devices. Crude reclamation efforts exist using crude and dangerous methods in many places, but that is an unsustainable way to manage a growing volume of trash.
The good news is that recycling centers are starting to become more mainstream as the developed nations implement waste management and mitigation legislation and regulation. Smart innovative companies like 4th Bin and TechWaste Recycling are enabling more and more businesses to manage their e-waste in the manner they manage their other IT and technical infrastructure assets.
Integrating how a product is disposed of into its lifecycle is currently the best way to implement a recycling program, but the effort to manage waste should be a factor in every stage of every product’s life. By marrying the responsibility and the process for waste disposal into the way we make, use, and dispose of electronics, we can address most, if not all, of our problem.
The shrinking of electronics is also a significant beneficial factor. Materials aside, the sheer bulk of products has also changed how we view some e-waste. This also impacts the supply chain and the disposal effort, as smaller and lighter products are both easier to ship and to dispose of. Just picture a stack of old 36-inch television sets with cathode-ray tubes next to a stack of modern LED-driven LCDs. The amount of glass, plastic, and metal in the new product is a fraction of the amount used in the old.
The key is that we must use every tool at our disposal – improved tech, integrated supply and disposal chains, and a mindset open to using them – to solve our e-waste problem and make this world a little better in the process.