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Chances are high that you’ll be getting or giving new electronics this holiday season: an iPhone upgrade for mom perhaps, or maybe a new Windows 8 ultrabook. Device upgrades have become increasingly frequent for many of us. Unfortunately, too many people give virtually no thought to what becomes of all these discarded gadgets.
And neither are most device manufacturers.
Some 41.5 million tons of electronic waste was generated in 2011, and that number is expected to rise to 93.5 million by 2016, according to the research firm MarketsandMarkets. Right now, 70 to 80 percent of all that old gadgetry goes straight to landfills.
Oh sure, many companies have green initiatives. Apple in particular has made notable, documented efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, powering a majority of its retail stores and data centers with renewable energy, developing more efficient packaging design, and designing products that use less power than their predecessors. But if your products are going to be tossed out in a year, none of that is particularly brag-worthy. That’s a tremendous amount of wasted resources.
In the past, computers were designed to be relatively easy to disassemble, like HP’s towers and older versions of the Mac Mini. You could swap out dead parts and batteries, add more memory if it got sluggish, even replace a motherboard. But in the mid-2000s, things started to change. Apple introduced the ultra-thin, ultra-light MacBook Air and the industry enthusiastically followed with heaping helpings of devices that, while slim, were very difficult to repair due to the construction compromises required to achieve that svelte profile. Smartphones and tablets followed with an even faster purchasing and chucking cycle.
As mobile gadgets exploded we became a culture that abandoned its gear regularly, on a massive scale. It’s an epic environmental and economic problem not simply because people aren’t properly recycling their old devices, but because many devices are all but impossible to recycle efficiently.
Electronics include a host of environmentally deleterious chemicals like mercury, cadmium, lead, phosphors, arsenic, and beryllium. When they end up in a landfill, these chemicals eventually seep into the ground and into our water supply. Thus, properly disposing of them through programs offered by device manufacturers like Asus, Samsung, or Apple, or retailers like Best Buy or Staples, are paramount.
But that’s only part of the equation. Manufacturers also play a vital role in the success (or failure) of this endeavor.
The Recycling Process
When you turn your device in to get recycled, a few things happen. First, it’s assessed. Does it have dents or scratches? A broken screen? Does it turn on? If it’s in good shape, the product is wiped of any remaining data and repackaged to be resold. This is generally done by hand.
“You can mechanize the cleaning, but the assessment, fixing, re-testing, and repackaging is still a very human and touch-related business,” said John Shegerian, the CEO of ERI. The company is among the world’s largest e-waste recyclers, with more than one billion pounds of of material recycled since 2005.
If a product’s not fit to resell or the manufacturer isn’t interested in selling refurbished gadgets, it is disassembled and shredded so things like steel, copper, and aluminum can be recycled. Glass is also melted down and recycled. When you send your device to a recycling outfit like ERI, nothing ends up in the landfill. But for such an effort to be worthwhile, two things must be considered: What’s the value of the raw materials that can be recovered from the device, and how much effort does it take to get them? If retrieving all that material costs more than it’s worth, it simply isn’t worth the effort because the recycler is operating at a loss.
Therefore, the easier it is to disassemble something, the more likely it is to be worth someone’s time to recycle it. And that’s where issues arise.
“The big problem the electronics industry is facing as a whole is products are getting lighter and lighter,” iFixit’s Kyle Wiens said. “This is great for consumers but a nightmare for recyclers.” Smaller, lighter products can be tricky to take apart, and yield a lower volume of raw materials.
Safety is a big concern for the workers tasked with dismantling discarded gadgetry. iFixit, which tears down electronic devices and posts online repair manuals, often works with recyclers to ensure everything is safely and efficiently disassembled. Device manufacturers usually don’t do that.
Glue and adhesives are a common hurdle. Products like the iPad and Microsoft Surface achieve a slim form factor by using “a metric duckload of adhesive,” as Wiens once put it, particularly to keep the battery in place. All that glue must be removed before any recyclable material can be melted down. And battery recycling is risky endeavorin the best of circumstances—under the right conditions, a damaged battery can cause a fiery explosion. Tack onto that the need to painstakingly pry a battery from its glue-smeared lodging and you’ve got a delicate task indeed.
For items with a lot of glue, like a tablet display, Sims Recycling Solutions heats the glue, then uses suction cups to apply pressure across the glass so it can be removed without cracking.
Other things that can make a product more challenging to recycle include the number of screws (particularly non-standard screws), the inclusion of hazardous materials like mercury (which is declining, due to the rising popularity of LEDs instead of bulbs), large amounts of glass, and plastics. Waterproof and tightly sealed products also are more arduous to deal with.
Designing Recyclable Products
While no one we spoke with would say so outright, Apple products are among the most difficult to recycle. (Apple did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) The very things that make them the most marketable—multiple colors, thin profile, big glass displays, seamless cases—also make them difficult to disassemble. However Sims, the company Apple officially contracts with for recycling, suggested that Apple works with them to develop and provide tools workers can use, and is very engaged in helping them figure out the best way to recycle products at the end of their useful lives.
Not all device makers, and not all recycling facilities, get this same level of help though. Sometimes, between the time it takes to dismantle products and the injuries workers get in the process, lucrative contracts with specific manufacturers are barely worth the trouble.
As we rush headlong into a world in which we’re disposing of more and more gadgets each year, making them easily recyclable should be a growing priority of device makers. Just as display size, processor speed and energy efficiency are marketing points, so too should recyclability.
David Thompson, Panasonic’s head of environmental affairs, says the standardization of screws and plastic resin materials, not thermally setting screws in plastic, and minimizing the use of glue will boost recycling efforts, as will designing products for easier disassembly. Would consumers really decry, or even notice, these changes? Probably not. But such changes could require concessions to slim dimensions and light weight. And for manufacturers, increased standardization may mean fewer distinctions between competing products. Take a plastic smartphone housing: Currently there are hundreds of variations (soft touch, textures, and metallic colors, to name a few). Standardization could limit that very marketable variety.
Even so, some products are embracing such ideals. Dell won The Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries 2014 Design for Recycling award for the Latitude 10 and XPS 10 tablets and Latitude E7240 notebook. Aside making its products cheap and easy to recycle, Dell has used nearly 8 million pounds of recycled plastic in its desktop and display production. And it is not alone.
“Companies are getting better at making greener, more recyclable products. They’re asking to visit our facilities and learn from our pain points,” Shegerian said.
More manufacturers need to start doing this. An old smartphone or laptop can only be reused (“The truest form of recycling,” says Sims sales and marketing vice president Sean Magann) so many times. The pattern of gadget manufacturing, use, and disposal needs to become circular to ensure our environment doesn’t turn into a Wall-E-esque landscape of toxic landfills, and to ensure the continued availability of the stuff that’s needed to keep making all these gadgets. Because we aren’t going to stop buying things any time soon.
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