The last several decades have brought a global explosion of electronics with a huge impact on quality of life and communications, as well as the world economy.
But, like most big human-induced changes, there were unintended consequences, primarily in the form of the mountains of waste that resulted as products quickly became obsolete and tossed out only to be replaced by others with an equally short lifespan. (One study showed that 25 percent of electronic devices were used less than 500 hours before being discarded.) This is exacerbated by the fact that electronic waste can contain dangerous materials including lead, mercury and cadmium.
In the opening piece in this series, Robert Frisbee, CEO of the Green Electronics Council, spoke of the organization’s mission “to rethink how a technology-centric society can continue moving toward sustainability, and to take the appropriate steps to help electronics become a cornerstone of a vibrant and healthy world.”
Indeed, numerous entities have taken action on the problem. There are now take-back laws in several European countries and American states, as part of an extended producer responsibility (EPR) movement. Many manufacturers and retailers have gotten on the bandwagon, and some have found ways to do it profitably.
But with electronic devices not only changing rapidly but getting increasingly smaller, some of the strategies that have been effectively used to recover these materials are getting more difficult to implement. To get a better handle on this, we spoke with Willie Cade, who is in the electronics recycling business, about the challenges now facing the industry.
Cade told me that things were easier when desktop and tower configurations were the norm, because those platforms were larger, designed for disassembly, and because they had reached a certain level of maturity. “They were pretty simple to carry on into a second use,” said Cade, who serves as CEO of PC Rebuilders & Recyclers in Chicago.
Standards (at least in the PC world) were eventually developed for things like hard drive interfaces and form factors, bus interfaces for printed circuit boards, CPU sockets, and memory. That meant that old PC’s could be upgraded by simply pulling out one component and replacing it with a newer one. The machines were also easier to disassemble, as screws or snap-fits were often used to hold them together.
As laptops displaced PCs in popularity, the level of standardization and upgradeability dropped.
Standardization is important for a number reasons. Companies like Cade’s could make money taking in old computers and repairing or upgrading them by simply replacing parts, then selling these in the aftermarket to people outside of what Cade calls “the digital elite.” As devices have become smaller and less standardized, the universe of individual parts has grown enormously — making it difficult, and costly, for repair shops to keep enough inventory.
The relationship between standardization and innovation is really an interesting sideline. Because it’s only when innovation has slowed down enough for standards to be applied that third parties can get involved in the market. When they do, there is tremendous additional innovation and competition in that space. In the PC world, there was a huge aftermarket in peripherals. Laptops could still work with a wide array of standard USB devices. Now, in the mobile world, most of that innovation has migrated into software apps. It’s because of published software standards that apps can migrate from one phone to the next, while none of the hardware can, except possibly chargers and headsets.
But there is another element, literally, that has driven the economics behind recycling. That element is gold. Many electronic circuits use gold contacts and, as everyone knows, gold is very valuable. Cade says, “Gold is the economic engine behind material recovery.” Recyclers could spend a great deal to recover this gold, and still make a profit.
“Today PCs are rapidly being replaced by smartphones and tablets. These are smaller, far less standardized and are often held together with adhesives,” Cade said. The glue makes disassembly problematic. Also, the material set has changed. “What’s happened in the past couple of decades is that we went from using about 20 elements to about 70. Our best smelters in the world can recover about 20 of them from this electronics waste stream. Lithium batteries also create a problem in the recovery of the heavier, more precious metals.”
What does that mean for material recovery? “It’s kind of like the CRTs. The tablet and cellphones, which are glued together and have a battery inside, can no longer just be thrown into the fire to recover the materials.”
So, it’s become more challenging. Does that mean more stuff is ending up in landfills? Cade doesn’t think so. Because they are smaller, people tend to store them longer. “We have a lot of cell phones sitting in drawers.”
Carbon investment per device, which is primarily in the integrated circuits, has remained fairly constant, though surprisingly high. (The embedded carbon in two PCs is equivalent to one car on the road for a year.) The intensity of the new devices is higher, but since they are smaller, that evens out. Collection tonnage is going down. With all of the collection processes in place, Cade believes that the amount going into landfills today is minimal.
Computer refurbishing is a $1 billion business worldwide. But refurbishment companies are mostly working with desktops, towers and, to some extent, laptops. What happens when those give way to tablets and smartphones?
“The industry is certainly dynamic and adaptive. It will be interesting to see what happens. Any OEM who can efficiently solve the question of reuse and repair, in today’s world, is going to be a huge winner.”