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Jan Lee headshot

Green Electronics Council Sponsored Series

The Circular Economy and Green Electronics

Wearable Tech Goes Recycle-less

By Jan Lee

Imagine a world in which cell phone chargers aren't necessary ... a world where charging your iPhone is as simple as plugging it into an outlet on your shirt. Or maybe you want to be able to monitor not only your sleep patterns but your general health. There's a ring being designed for that.

Or maybe music is your thing, and while you are listening to the latest release, you like to keep up with your health stats, which are all collected in the sweat-resistant buds in your ears.

Not your style? Are you too on-the-go? No problem. In the future there may be soles in your shoes that can track all this stuff, manage your phone calls and keep your toes toasty at the same time.

The burgeoning wearable technology industry offers huge opportunities for consumers who want to tailor their electronics to meet their needs and lifestyles. But this boom comes with a question: What do we do with that amazing paraphernalia when we're done with it?

In years past, the answer to new technology would be to find a way to recycle the discarded components, like metal casing, wiring or components made exclusively of polymer. But wearable technology doesn't always afford that option.

One reason is, very simply, size.

"I think one of the challenges with electronics and the end-of-life electronics is you are talking about materials that are truly mixed on the nano-scale," Dr. John Howarter, an assistant professor in Materials Engineering at Purdue University, told TriplePundit.

Often the materials being used consist of extremely small blends of multiple substances that would make it genuinely impossible to separate for processing. The ring that tracks your health stats likely isn't made of one material with working components, like watches used to be, but has a diverse blend of metals and polymers fused or mixed together. The shirt will likely have extremely fine filaments that are melded with polymers, perhaps even components that aren't visible to the naked eye. The working components can't just be plucked out of the composite and tossed into a batch to be recycled.

The question that is now before the designers who make our wearable tech, Howarter said, isn't just how to design the technology for consumer use, but how to design it for its end-of-life cycle as well - an end-of-life where some of those composites might be released into the waste stream or the environment, and others could be returned to the manufacturer to be repurposed.

This shift in approach, explained Dr. Carol Handwerker, a professor of materials engineering and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue, has a lot to do with the increasing modification in what our tech gizmos are made of.

"One of the things that is happening in electronics overall is that the amount of precious metals is going down," Handwerker told us. "So gold, palladium, things that have intrinsic worth is almost nil. And what that means is ... one, that the cost of the raw materials is going down, because those are really not used." That means that the substances that have been the most damaging to the environment, either because of the way they are mined or the way that they respond when released into landfills and other environments, are being used less and less in consumer product applications.

"So, when you start to look at design sustainability instead of just design for recycling, you have a very different set of criteria one can use," Handwerker continued. "Ultimately what we would like is to have maybe almost all polymer" combined, of course, with that essential little chip.

"And you want it to be that you can use those [items] until basically they wear out, and there is a way to send them back and somebody at the company will re-manufacture the whole product, taking the little chip out and putting it in something else again. But in the end, we will have used all the energy and materials we have put into it very well, and in the end, it could even possibly be landfilled. Because you are simply disposing carbon then."

And there is another benefit to that shift in manufacturing science, Howarter said. "I think the other thing to keep in mind is, when we are talking about wearable electronics, what we are really saying is we’re going to have some sort of material that is going to be in contact with my body a significant amount of the day. And I think once you start transitioning to that now, it becomes really imperative to think about ... what the composition of that whole component will be." Making materials as benign to our skin and organs is as important as minimizing their impact on the land, water and air around us.

"And we want to eliminate waste at all stages. We’re talking about the gold mining. We’re talking about waste all along the supply chain, all along manufacturing. But there is also a movement right now to really reframe electronics in what is known as the circular economy," Handwerker concluded.

The big challenge for the future, said Dr. Bob Pfal, a consultant and former vice president of global operations for the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative in Herndon, Virginia, will be batteries: those essential harborers of energy that is built into so much of our technology. Finding ways to nullify their toxicity would be important, Pfahl told us. "Trying to make these small products so they can go in the regular waste stream for the most part, and obviously there are exceptions, in my mind would be a very good design approach."

Pfahl says that from a market perspective, recycling wearable tech components will be impractical in most cases. "I really do think that in most cases the smaller [components] is not going to be a particularly attractive market for recycling."

The answer, he says, is "to use as little material as possible," and to design products that use less power -- steps that are already in place. "Designers are coming up with great applications that eliminate the use of energy and power from the way we are currently doing things," Pfahl said.

There are many challenges, Howarter said, but in the end, a more sensible way of harnessing potential in our wearable tech is within reach. "It is just a matter of putting the engineer or designer’s mind to work and saying, 'How do we design for the end-of-life?'  I think as we rethink how to make products and how to deal with them, these solutions will come."

Images credits: 1) Flickr/Keoni Cabral; 2) Flickr/Com Salud Agencia; 3) Flickr/SMI Eye Tracking

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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