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Earth Day 2013: The Supply Chain’s Role in Reducing E-Waste

When Earth Day was first proposed in 1969, its proponents could not have foreseen how rapidly electronics products would become electronics waste (e-waste). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2.5 million tons of e-waste is generated each year in the United States alone. The United Nations — which sanctioned Earth Day in 1970 — also didn't foresee that most of the US's e-waste would be exported to other nations.

A lot of the components and materials in e-waste — plastics, metals, glass, and other elements — can safely be reclaimed and recycled. However, this is an expensive process; so many industrialized nations export old computers, cellphones, TVs, and other equipment to developing nations. The low-cost labor in these countries provides a cost-effective method for breaking down old electronics. However, many of the local laws governing these nations do not provide the level of protection organizations such as the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provide in the US. The workers that are handling and processing e-waste may not be aware of the effects that lead, cadmium, mercury, and certain plastics have on the human body when they are touched or inhaled.

A lot of the components and materials in e-waste -- plastics, metals, glass, and other elements -- can safely be reclaimed and recycled. However, this is an expensive process.

A lot of the components and materials in e-waste — plastics, metals, glass, and other elements — can safely be reclaimed and recycled. However, this is an expensive process.

Lifting no finger
In China, Ghana, and India, some recyclers do little to prevent the release of toxic materials, according to a recent article in BusinessWeek. Workers use acid to etch metals from circuit boards, polluting the environment with heavy metals, and burn the plastic covering off of wires to get at the copper underneath.

There are numerous ways to prevent and control e-waste, and every company in the electronics supply chain can contribute to the effort. Rochester Electronics, for example, adds value in a number of areas. Rochester is able to extend the lifespan of many electronics components that are deemed obsolete by suppliers by acquiring end-of-life (EOL) inventory; re-manufacturing devices; or re-creating parts from suppliers' intellectual property (IP). Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), in turn, can use these components to extend the lifecycle of their equipment and keep it out of landfills for a longer period of time. The longer existing equipment is used, the less churn there is in the upgrade cycle.

Rochester performs these services with full support from original component manufacturers (OCMs). Rochester and its partners also collaborate in planning for EOL. Within the semiconductor industry, certain disciplines can be applied to help avoid the unnecessary wasting of resources, time, money, and man-hours associated with end-of-life announcements, hard-to-find devices, and counterfeit components that find their way into the supply chain. If a product has to be re-manufactured or re-created, Rochester can build the green equivalent of that device — again, with full support from suppliers.

Extending the lifespan of equipment not only delays its advancement toward landfills, but enables governments, businesses, and health organizations to find better ways of reclaiming and recycling e-waste — and protecting workers. With time, workers will use machines to strip plastic and reclaim copper and other material used in electronics. They won't be doing it by hand and the economics will allow for efficiencies in the process. Better practices and better planning not only benefits the Earth, but its inhabitants as well. Those are two of the goals the founders of Earth Day have always envisioned.

18 comments on “Earth Day 2013: The Supply Chain’s Role in Reducing E-Waste

  1. prabhakar_deosthali
    April 29, 2013

    In my opinion, apart from the defense equipment, nobody requires the recycled or re manufactured components.

    This is because , in consumer electronics , which is the major driver for the electronic component industry, the products are becoming obsolete faster than the components used in them, as the geometries keep shrinking and the new sleek products get introduced in the market even before the market has matured for the previous version of the product.

    In this scenario,   recycling to get the raw materials back without polluting the environment is the only option remaining

  2. Eldredge
    April 29, 2013

    @prabhakar – you have a good point. Probably the only way to make this wook at any level in consumer electronics wouls be to  make it fashionable.

  3. hash.era
    April 29, 2013

    @Eldredge: Yes at least that will capture the eyes of the consumers and will try to do some justice towards the cause.     

  4. Eldredge
    April 29, 2013

    @hash.era  –  exactly…if consumers are willing to create the demand, it will help drive the effort in the consumer sector.

  5. Houngbo_Hospice
    April 29, 2013

    @hash.era

    What is interesting is that, some users are aware of the importance of electronics recycling even though the cost of collecting and transporting discarded electronics is a concern for legitimate recyclers. 

  6. Houngbo_Hospice
    April 29, 2013

    @Eldredge,

    What do you mean by making electronics recycling “fashionable”? I know there can be “gold hidden in the trash”, but how much of it is appealing to fashion designers?

  7. Eldredge
    April 29, 2013

    Actually, I meant fashionable as a trend / movement .. not as an adornment.

  8. Houngbo_Hospice
    April 29, 2013

    @prabhakar_deosthali

    “the products are becoming obsolete faster than the components used in them”

    Recycling doesn't always mean the re-use of the electronics components. For instance recyclers can extract copper from circuit boards and re-use it to build other produicts.

  9. Ariella
    April 29, 2013

    @Hh There is direct recycling and upcycling, when you turn something into something else, as explained in http://greenliving.nationalgeographic.com/recycling-vs-upcycling-20221.html Some of that does involve turning, say the bit of copper into fashion jewlery. However, I believe that what Eldrege meant here with respect to “fashionable” is what people generally do. 

  10. Taimoor Zubar
    April 29, 2013

    I think when it comes to reducing e-waste the biggest question is what incentives do companies have to reduce it. At the end of the day, it's all about the cost vs the benefits. If the benefits of reducing the e-waste don't directly translate into monetary benefits or cost-savings in future, companies will not invest in it despite whatever recognition and accolades they get.

  11. Taimoor Zubar
    April 29, 2013

    @prabhakar: That's a valid observation. The desposable nature of electronic components has certainly impacted the recycling. Companies no longer want to recycle electronic devices. As you mentioned, the recycling of individual parts comes as an obvious solution which is less effective than reusing the entire device.

  12. Mr. Roques
    April 29, 2013

    How can you balance a company's desire to sell more and more devices, making them only last one or two years, at most, with their social responsibility? I read that Apple was going to test a lease-type system for their iPhones.

  13. Taimoor Zubar
    April 29, 2013

    How can you balance a company's desire to sell more and more devices, making them only last one or two years, at most, with their social responsibility?”

    @Mr Roques: As I said, direct financial incentives is the key. Rather than putting up fines for non-conformance, companies can be given monetary rewards if they're able to stay out of any environmental issues raised against them for an year. The incentive has to be sound enough so it acts as a motivating factor rather than just something that the companies can easily ignore.

  14. Houngbo_Hospice
    April 30, 2013

    @Mr. Roques,

    The race for innovation and competitiveness is the driving force behind most companies's product launch strategy. Manufacturers need to be shipping out new products on a regular basis, in order to be viable and survive. We may not need a new “new iPad” that soon, but Apple cannot afford not to come up with a new product – even if it is a minor improvement over the previous version.

  15. FLYINGSCOT
    April 30, 2013

    We are in a world where it is cheaper to throw something away than to repair it.  It is also cheaper buying a brand new printer with ink than the genuine ink catridge (in some cases).  Once we fix these things we can maybe start to reduce waste.

  16. Adeniji Kayode
    April 30, 2013

    @FLYINGSCOT,

    That is a good observation.Does it make any sense that a complete printer with new catridges is more cheaper than replacing the catridges when exhausted.

  17. Adeniji Kayode
    April 30, 2013

    @Hospice,

    You made a good point there. That seems to be the secret of staying on top the ladder in the world of consumers' electronics and automobile.

  18. hash.era
    June 30, 2013

    @Eldredge: They will as long as the quality is matched. 

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