Electronics have become an integral, almost mundane, part of our everyday lives. The convenience they bring is great, but there is a downside to their presence.
The other day, one of the students I work with took apart a plug-in air freshener for a project he was working on. The whole office was surprised to find circuitry components and a little printed wiring board. While it might not fall under one of the many e-waste laws in effect globally, that wiring board brings with it many of the issues electronics have, especially when the air freshener's useful life is over.
Taking a step back, electronic waste, or e-waste, is a catchall term that describes any piece of electrical or electronic equipment that is no longer useful to the current owner and is thrown away.
Disassembled plug-in air freshener. Photograph by Kevin Dooley.
There is no single accepted definition of what is or is not considered e-waste. The term is used differently by different organizations around the world. It's actually quite surprising, when you stop to look, how many products that will eventually become e-waste have slipped into our lives. Products that haven't been plugged in or haven't used batteries before, such as air fresheners, now use electricity; and traditional electrical products, such as refrigerators and coffee makers, have computing power comparable to that of small computers. All of these "smart" products interconnect to create the Internet of Things (IoT) -- and a wave of e-waste that is not anticipated.
Admittedly, I think more about this than many people, since e-waste is my passion and research interest at The Sustainability Consortium at Arizona State University. Trying to figure out what is out there, how to improve systems to capture more stuff, and what we can do to stem the tide of e-waste is a fascinating, relevant problem we can all do something about.
Why worry about e-waste? Human health impacts are by far the best publicized part of the e-waste problem. Illegal exports are made to countries that don't have the ability to handle the materials safely, and people breathe toxic fumes while employing primitive ways to recover precious metals. These issues cannot, and should not, be trivialized, but they describe only part of the problem.
Every piece of equipment is a resource, with pieces that can be reused or used for parts to fix other devices and with metals and plastics that can be recycled. When we throw things away, we lose these resources. The majority of elements in the periodic table can now be found in an average computer, and anything with a circuit board has gold or copper and other minerals that can be captured and reused in new products.
One group or individual can't fix this. The solution lies in a lot of little actions taken by everyone who touches these types of products. Certainly, refurbishers and recyclers are doing everything they can to maximize what is reused and recovered. Consumers need to be conscious of what they're buying, and to maximize reuse or enable others to do so by not stashing unused equipment in closets or drawers. Continuing to use those resources is the most efficient way to conserve. Even if the desire to reuse or upgrade is there, it's not always possible, especially for something like an air freshener. Companies, and their designers, in particular, have a great opportunity to help everyone else through their small steps.
Giving design consideration to how the resources will come back out of a product prior to putting them in is one way to help everyone be more successful and keep those resources in play, rather than in a landfill. It's going to take creativity and inspiration, but through little actions we can continue to have the gadgets that make our lives easier as well as the resources to make new gadgets possible.
To read more about product design for the environment in the electronics industry, read our new Velocity e-Mag titled The Sustainability Balancing Act.