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New E-waste Disposal Solution: Just in Time for iPhone 5?

RP Siegel | Tuesday September 11th, 2012 | 0 Comments

With the iPhone 5 release date just around the corner, what better time for some new ideas for e-waste recycling? After all, those millions of people buying new phones will want to find a responsible way to recycle their old ones, or will they?

Yesterday, InnoCentive, EDF and EMC announced the winner of a challenge aimed at finding solutions for tracking shipments of used electronic components and subsystems and ensuring that they are disposed of responsibly. This particular challenge was part of an Eco-challenge series presented by a partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and InnoCentive. EMC, a maker of network storage solutions that enable businesses to deliver IT as a service, was the solution seeker.

According to the Challenge Overview:

“Using current processes and technologies, it is simply too difficult to measure the true destination of e-waste as it passes through the hands of downstream contractors who handle disposal and recycling.  This Challenge seeks ideas for a scalable system (may include processes, devices, etc.) that will allow EMC to follow e-waste to final destination.  EMC’s systems are large and complicated pieces of equipment made of sub-systems; this Challenge seeks a way to track individual parts and subsystems.”

InnoCentive is an open innovation company that utilizes crowdsourcing and prize competitions as tools to help organizations to draw on vast pools of ideas and suggestions to solve problems. Some examples of current challenges that are open to solutions include: electronic tags for inhaler devices ($5k prize), innovation in arms control ($10k prize), algorithm for matching latent fingerprints ($100k prize) and so on.

The EMC challenge attracted close to 800 solvers, and more than 60 solutions were submitted. Three solutions were selected and the three solvers split the $10k prize.

Each of the three solutions dealt with some form of encoding the parts so that they could be tracked in some fashion.

  1. Use of a 12-digit RFID code printed on each part that can be scanned as parts are transported. (Note a similar system is being used by Boeing to track parts within their maintenance system.)
  2. Use of an electronic identification bee (e-Bee) that combines electronic identification codes printed on components with an online crowdsourcing platform that together yield a holistic picture of where electronic components end up
  3. A tracking system that leverages a sheet of labels printed with unique, encrypted codes for each major component in the system. Similar to those used in the fresh food industry, the labels would be applied to and follow subsystem components as they move through the disposal process.

EMC plans to continue development of the ideas by brainstorming with the solvers to find the synergies between ideas and perhaps combine them into a single solution. Final outcomes will be shared with industry peers.

EDF has taken an active role in addressing the 20-50 million tons of electronic products that are discarded each year, according to Greenpeace (video). Namrita Kapur, director of strategy for EDF’s Corporate Partnerships Program says, “Proper disposal of e-waste has been an ongoing issue for the IT industry with serious environmental and business impacts, such as public health, waste reduction and data security. The solutions discovered through this Eco-Challenge are another example of how we can use proven tools such as crowdsourcing to help unlock innovative ideas that lead to game-changing solutions for problems like e-waste.”

This is yet another example of the positive impact potential of crowdsourcing. According to Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of InnoCentive, “The strong interest and engagement of our Solver community in this and other Eco-Challenges speaks to the strong desire of people across the globe not just to solve complex problems, but also to have a meaningful impact on our planet. Whether it’s helping reduce agricultural pollutants, finding better ways to recycle lead-heavy glass or improving how we track old electronic components, our Solvers have risen to every Challenge, proving that great ideas can [come] from anywhere and that crowdsourcing has become one of the most powerful tools for driving innovation.”

And for you new iPhone buyers, please be sure to recycle your old cell phones.

[Image credit: Sinead Fenton: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

 


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