Greener Gadgets by Design
Regulations, incentives, and other factors are pushing manufacturers to consider recycling in the design of electronic products, but many think they could do more.
By Ann C. Logue
We can all look back and laugh at what our electronic devices looked like—and how little they did—15 years ago. Cell phones were as big as a TV remote control, and they could only make phone calls. The first IBM ThinkPad laptop computers weighed more than 6 pounds. Portable music came via bulky CD players. And the cathode-ray-tube television or computer monitor could be found in nearly every home or office.
Since then, manufacturers have designed electronic products that are lighter, smaller, more feature-packed, and (often) less expensive. Some of the visible changes—as well as other, less visible ones—also have been a boon to electronics recyclers. Though few companies considered the environmental impact of their electronic products 15 years ago, since then interest in cradle-to-cradle product management has grown significantly, and manufacturers now tout the environmentally friendly features of their products. Here's a look at what's driving that change and the relationship between electronics design and electronics recycling.
Design Barriers to Recycling
PVC plastics used to insulate copper cables and brominated flame retardants in plastic housings are another concern because they can produce carcinogenic dioxins and furans when burned, thus they can become hazardous when electronics that contain them are smelted to capture their nonferrous metals they contain—or when they're incinerated as an alternative to landfilling or in a waste-to-fuel process. This is especially a concern in developing countries, where several exposés have documented the unregulated, open burning of electronics to collect the precious metals they contain. Additional hazards include lead solder on circuitboards, mercury in the fluorescent lights in flat-panel displays, rechargeable and "button" batteries, and polychlorinated biphenyl in older capacitors.
Some of these materials, like leaded glass, are hazards when disposed of improperly but not hazardous when properly contained, processed, and recycled. But electronics recyclers are stuck with the higher costs of proper handling of these recyclables or the proper disposal of nonrecyclable hazards. "There are labor costs, training costs, and processing costs," explains Joe Clayton of Synergy Recycling (Madison, N.C.). "To pull every button battery off a circuitboard, we have to open it, pull the battery off, get it to the right refiner, [as well as] train people how to do it—there are a lot of costs involved." Those costs can equal or exceed the value of the other commodities electronics contain. To operate in the black, electronics recyclers often charge fees to those who bring items for recycling or limit the products they accept, both actions that could discourage recycling, especially where landfilling electronics is still legal.
Michelle Mosmeyer, a spokesperson for Dell (Round Rock, Texas), says that progress on replacing hazardous materials in electronics with safer ones is sometimes slower than outsiders would like, but for good reason. "We can't make any of these changes if they compromise the integrity or safety of the system," she says. To meet the goal of eliminating flame retardants and PVC cabling, for instance, Dell's engineers have to identify plastics that provide the same safety and performance standards without the environmental risks. Clayton acknowledges the difficulty. "I believe manufacturers are trying to pull out the hazardous component," he says. "I have seen lots of progress, and I applaud their efforts."
Hazardous materials are not the only barrier to electronics recycling, however. Product design can be problematic as well. Manufacturers might use a half-dozen different types of plastic in a single product, each for a certain performance characteristic: durability, appearance, flexibility, and so on. Shredding an end-of-life electronic product commingles the plastics, creating a product for which there's little demand in the United States, says Kimie Romeo, co-owner of Imagine It (Rochester, N.Y.), which operates electronics collection programs. Domestic markets are much more interested in separated plastics, she says. Clayton concurs. In the past few years, post-shredder systems that separate plastics by color, density, and other characteristics have made it easier to market electronics plastics, he says. "If you have a clean product,"—meaning one that's segregated by type and color and, ideally, free of flame retardants—"you'll be able to sell it," he says. He has seen improvement in the reusability of electronics plastics over the years, he says, and he has found some reliable markets that pay fairly for the material, too. But the process would be simplified if manufacturers used fewer types of plastics or clearly labeled those they do use—a process that HP and some other manufacturers are beginning to undertake.
Another problem with plastics is they usually get downcycled into lower-quality materials that are not used in electronics, says Barbara Kyle of the Electronics Takeback Coalition (San Francisco). " There are limits to how much you can reuse them without adding virgin plastics," she says, giving the recycled product a lower value. When considering design for recycling, "it's important to look at the economics to make sure the materials are ones the recycler can make money off of," she says. If processed electronics create commodity streams that have a negative value, such as leaded glass, or a low value, like plastics, processors will not find buyers in the more lucrative markets, she says.
If manufacturers would make electronics housings out of metals instead of plastics, that would be a "game-changer," Kyle says. She points to Apple, which was the first to go with an aluminum casing on its laptop computers; other companies have followed. "Metal costs more on the front end, but it has the benefit of being infinitely recyclable and is more likely to be recycled," she says. "Nobody is going to landfill it if they can make money off of it."
The way a product is assembled also affects how easily it's disassembled for recycling. Clayton recalls that when his company started, computers were held together by many tiny screws, and each manufacturer's screws were of a slightly different design and required a different tool for removal. Clayton says he's noticed huge improvements in product assembly over the years. More recent designs use few screws, often substituting snaps or levers, making it easier to disassemble machines to harvest materials for reuse or processing. "I think the manufacturers are trying," he says. Sony has added clear labeling with the number and location of screws in a device to make disassembly easier, HP provides detailed disassembly instructions on its Web site, and Dell's Web site has data sheets for all of its products describing the materials they contain and other information of interest to recyclers.
Other design trends work in recyclers' favor. Smaller and lighter electronic products generally contain a greater proportion of precious metals and other nonferrous metals, making the value per pound higher and making them easier to transport, Clayton notes.
"Although the original equipment manufacturers have been working hard on making products easier to recycle, they always could do better," says Eric Harris, ISRI's director of government and international affairs. Romeo says that her wish list for better design for recycling would include products with more universal components because that would allow greater reuse. There's no reason for every cell phone to have a different power adapter, for example. Such changes "have to start at the creation process," she says.
Another wish is for more electronics that can be repaired instead of replaced. Such products would have better value in markets for used products and parts. There is very real demand for used electronic equipment, both in developed countries to support legacy systems and in the developing world, where new equipment is not always affordable. "The obstacle to reuse is more on the manufacturer side," says Eric Williams, a professor at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University (Tempe, Ariz.). Manufacturers do not want reused equipment cutting into the market for new equipment, nor do they want to deal with requests for support for old products. It's unlikely, however, that someone spending $100 for a computer with a Pentium III processor can afford a newer model, he says.
Drivers of Change
The United States has taken a different approach—more carrot than the EU's stick—to encourage manufacturers to improve the recyclability of their products. Building off of the success of the Energy Star label, which helps consumers buy energy-efficient appliances, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funded the development of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (www.epeat.net). EPEAT helps manufacturers design products with certain environmental benefits and then certifies and labels those products as meeting EPEAT standards. Registered products can receive a gold, silver, or bronze certification. To reach the bronze level, the products must meet 23 required criteria, including labeling mercury light sources, identifying materials with special handling needs, and containing at least 65 percent recycled or recyclable components. That last requirement has the potential to influence product design, Clayton notes. "A manufacturer looking at returning plastics back into production sees the benefits of not cross-contaminating [recycled] plastic streams. If you're going to do closed-loop recycling, it makes more sense not to mess it up at the front end."
EPEAT gives manufacturers a market incentive to improve their products' recyclability, Harris says, and it encourages them to think about incremental improvements they can make to achieve a higher level of certification. For example, he says, "If you have to use mercury to make the device work, is there a way to isolate the mercury so that it is easy to remove and recycle?" Putting further weight behind the program, Cassel says, is the move for business and government procurement rules to give preference to or mandate the purchase of EPEAT-certified products.
Cindy Erie, president of E-World Recyclers (Vista, Calif.), participates in the EPEAT program, representing the e-recycling industry on conference calls and at meetings organized by the Green Electronics Council (Portland, Ore.), which runs the federally funded effort. She agrees that EPEAT registration is a good start, though she notes that participating manufacturers don't have to register every product they make.
Additional incentives on the federal level could come from the Electronic Device Recycling and Research and Development Act, which Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced last year. The act would authorize the EPA to administer a grant program for research and development into electronics design to improve recycling and reuse, extend products' useful life, and reduce the amount of hazardous materials they contain. "This is something the recycling community supports, the environmental community supports, and the [electronics manufacturing] community supports," Harris says.
Pressure for better electronics design for recycling is coming from the state and local level as well. With the proliferation of electronic gadgets and greater understanding of the hazards they contain, "more and more [local] governments are realizing this stuff doesn't belong in the trash," Kyle says. They are passing landfill bans, leading consumers to call their solid waste district to ask where they can take electronics to recycle them. "The local governments are looking for manufacturers to take responsibility" for the products, Kyle says.
To date, 20 states have put the ball back in the manufacturers' court by implementing extended producer responsibility laws for certain electronic devices. These laws hold manufacturers responsible for recycling their products through a variety of means, such as by requiring them to operate electronics recycling programs in the state or to certify they have recycled a certain volume of electronics sold in the state. The hope is that if manufacturers are responsible for recycling their products, they'll design products that are easier to recycle. The manufacturers "will tell you that EPR programs are not driving their design," Cassel says, but "if manufacturers are responsible for the end of life [of their products], then they're going to find ways to reduce their costs. Changing design is one of those ways."
EPR laws have the potential to drive electronic product design, but "it's not going to happen overnight," Kyle says. Most of these laws have been in effect for only a few years. "I think volumes coming back through these programs must increase significantly before it's a significant driver," she says. "If a company is resigned to the fact that it has to pay for recycling, at some point it [will realize] it can make money if it designs the product properly."
Unfortunately, product designs that have eliminated old problems can create new ones. CRTs have been replaced by LCD and plasma screens lit by fluorescent lamps, which contain mercury. The fluorescent lamps are numerous, hard to remove, and very fragile, Kyle explains. A recycler must "take apart the entire TV" to get to the lamps, and they're hard to remove without breaking, which releases the mercury into the environment. On some laptop computers, the fluorescent lamps are "fused in" and cannot in any practical way be removed, she says. When removal is possible, "it costs the recyclers money to handle those bulbs responsibly," Harris says.
Dell is now shipping notebooks made with LED screens, which don't contain mercury, Mosmeyer says. Such devices are new enough that any challenges they might pose to recycling are still unknown, Kyle and others say.
Electronics manufacturers have shown they will respond to a combination of regulation, customer demand, and profit potential. Ultimately, Romeo says, manufacturers have to invest in recycling just as recyclers have to invest in their businesses. "There is a real cost to doing things the right way," she says. •
Ann C. Logue is a Chicago-based writer.