We all have that drawer – the graveyard for discarded electronics. What’s in yours: a cracked phone, an obsolete activity tracker, maybe an original iPod? You hang onto them because it seems wrong to throw them away.
You’re right. Globally, 44.7 million tons of E-waste were generated in 2017 (Global E-waste Monitor) but only around one-fifth of this was recycled. Roughly half this pile comes from personal devices, which can be hard to round up from consumers.
The problem is not just environmental, in some cases it’s pragmatic. Many of the minerals in the products we throw away are difficult to obtain. The long-term consequences are serious. For example, a shortage of lithium or cobalt, both key materials in electric vehicle batteries, could slam the brakes on our migration to greener transport.
As with most environmental issues, the solution to E-waste lies with government, industry and the consumer. This article focuses on how product developers can play their part.
Ten ways to reduce E-waste
1. Think modular
If devices can become more modular, it becomes far easier for the consumer or an engineer to perform repairs. It also makes it easier to break up devices at the end of their life, a growing incentive if more industries are to become responsible for waste disposal.
Small product changes can make a significant impact, for example identifying which components tend to break first. Is there a way to make the component easily removable and replaceable? And if not, could it be designed to be more resilient?
2. Anticipate legislation
E-waste is a growing area of concern for governments, leading to a marked increase in the regulatory restrictions on disposal. This is noticeable in the electric car industry where the EU and China have made manufacturers responsible for collecting and disposing of car batteries.
Both regulation and taxation are likely to increase. There is an opportunity for product developers to anticipate these factors when designing new products.
3. Respect the Right to Repair
A generation ago, mending your own possessions was the done thing. Commonplace electrical repairs involved a loose wire or blown fuse. Today, electronic goods are much harder to mend, not helped by the move from screws to adhesive in assembly. You can no longer replace the battery in your phone and must go to a specialized repair shop for a damaged screen – think back to that drawer of retired electronics.
Product reviews now include ratings for ease of repair. France has introduced a law requiring an index of repairability which has encouraged manufacturers to offer online fixing guides. Other EU countries are rolling this out, including a requirement for manufacturers to ensure that spares are available for up to a decade. Sweden is also reducing the VAT rate on repairs and spare parts.
The ‘Right to Repair’ is a growing consumer rights issue and designers can reduce E-waste by making it easy to mend common faults.
4. Use recyclable materials
As materials and processing research has progressed, the range of options for easily recyclable electronics has increased. These vary from paper RFID tags and biodegradable PCB substrates to chemical methods for breaking down coatings which have traditionally made the recycling process more complicated. These are all options to keep in mind when starting a design.
5. Design for recycling early on
The recycling process has the potential to be very expensive, so designing with this in mind early on is key. There is also the challenge of encouraging consumers to return their devices in the first place. It’s much more difficult to recycle post-consumer waste than materials that are still under the control of manufacturers.
Material resources for electronic devices are becoming increasingly difficult to source and therefore more expensive. This highlights the benefits of setting up a “reverse supply chain” in which waste products are returned to their suppliers for recycling, allowing manufacturers to extract any reusable materials.
The electronics in many home appliances often only make up a tiny proportion of the product. If a more modular design is selected, it becomes far easier to separate the e-waste from the product for recycling.
6. Top the ratings
Concerns over ‘fast fashion’ in the retail industry could easily translate into customers rejecting low-cost short-lifetime electronic products.
A public ratings system for electronics that includes both ease of recycling and ease of repair as two separate metrics would prompt brands to question their design choices. Are there other less toxic or less scarce materials that could be used instead? Are there different versions of the product with lower E-waste potential?
Eupedia, an online guide to the EU, recently combined four indices covering a range of sustainability factors to provide a ranking of brands including ratings for recycling and repair.
7. Question whether electronics are necessary
Recently, electronics with ever-increasing features have been incorporated into previously ‘dumb’ products. In many cases, this enables functionality that was previously unachievable. However, sometimes we can obtain the same advantages without electronics, often leading to a lower-cost and simpler solution.
Designers should carefully consider the range of solutions available and weigh up the relative user benefits, costs, and environmental impacts to find the most appropriate one for their product. For a simple maximum temperature monitor, do electronics provide a unique additional benefit, or can a different type of innovation such as a chemically triggered color change provide the same information to the user?
8. Partner with smart devices
The obvious way to reduce E-waste is to produce less in the first place, but is this realistic? One route is to design electronics-free devices which are made smart through combination with a phone app. This often allows for the same functionality with no extra electronic components. For example, in diagnostic healthcare, agriculture and food safety testing, a phone camera can read and analyze colored test strips.
9. Consider a more sustainable business model
Some companies, for example Rolls Royce jet engines, have pioneered a service business model, in which customers hire products and return them to the supplier after use. This allows the manufacturer to perform any necessary repairs or replacements between hire periods. Under this model, the burden of recycling shifts back to the supplier, further encouraging them to design products with minimal E-waste.
10. Reduce material usage
Mobile phones have shrunk in size from a brick to a calculator. This has been made possible by the miniaturization of electronic components, printed circuits and connectors. The amount of material contained within each device has reduced considerably, even though complexity has increased.
The move from milling and other subtractive manufacturing technologies to molding and 3D printing has reduced waste. There are opportunities to mirror these changes in electronics. Instead of making a flat sheet of copper and then dissolving most of it to produce a printed circuit board, additive techniques such as printed electronics can lay down patterns of conductors and insulators only where they are needed.
Putting E-waste in context
Our customers want smaller, lighter, longer-lasting devices that are easy to recycle, and we can take all these factors into account every time we create a new design.
As we mentioned in a previous thought piece, solutions to E-waste must be looked at in the unique context of a product’s market and usage.
If we follow rules such as the above, we will make the optimum use of our planet’s limited material resources, and also lay the electronics graveyard drawer to rest.
Which improvements will you design into your next electronic product?
Graduate Electronics Engineer
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Senior Consultant Chemist
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