The Oncoming Tide of E-Waste

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.

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.

17 comments on “The Oncoming Tide of E-Waste

  1. t.alex
    May 8, 2014

    Hardly do we see a product that can be easily recycled. Most focus on the aesthetic aspect to make sure people will buy  the products first. 

  2. SP
    May 8, 2014

    Yes the tide of E-waste is already on the way. We see children's toys almost all used batteries, there are PCBs inside. The old spike busters, old phones etc. the list goes on and on. The sad part is e-waste recycling is still not being considered a serious business and there is absolutely no colllection mechanism. I have lots of e-waste lying in my home, have been keeping it aside but hardly there are recyclers. And no one wants to come and pick up as its makes no business sense.

  3. _hm
    May 10, 2014

    Air freshner in itself is polluting environment. Why people needs air freshners? Can there be alternate for that too?


  4. t.alex
    May 10, 2014

    SP, this is pretty good example. Children toys are easily broken thanks to the .. children. They smash they throw and the toys stop working after a while. I have never seen such service of collecting old toys for recycling.

  5. Carole Mars
    May 10, 2014

    Actually e-waste is a very serious business in the B-to-B space, but not for consumer products. The materials, boards and chips are low value and labor intensive to recover. Some recyclers have figured out how to do this profitably, mainly through volume, but it's definitely not simple for either the recycler or the consumer. I'm watching the variety of programs that are starting to try and change the idea of “waste” to “resource” or “scrap” to improve recycling. The local effort here is Reimagine Phoenix. E-waste doesn't tend to be on the agenda for these programs, but I think they'll have to deal with this issue, hopefully sooner than later.

  6. Carole Mars
    May 11, 2014

    Toys is actually a very interesting case – the product safety rules drive design away from recycled content (too much potential for contamination) and easy disassembly so kids aren't the ones taking batteries and other electronics out. There is also the tendancy of people to store or give away toys rather than recycling. British Columbia, Canada, actually does have a successful toy recycling program. The problem is what little is returned is completely broken or usually made of low-grade plastics that have no recycling value. It's a real challenge to figure out how to handle them.

  7. garyk
    May 16, 2014

    Everyone talke about Toys and Air Freashers. Easy solution, send them back to CHINA.

  8. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    May 16, 2014

    I hope that B2B programs will raise awareness on the part of consumers (employees are consumers too, afterall). Here's a link to the program that Carole mentioned: Reimagine Phoenix. Let us know about other programs in your area… what makes them great?

  9. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    May 16, 2014

    @Carole, i hope there will be a buyer revolution around toys. WIth my kids, i focused on getting fewer toys, and have those being made out of wood. THe dollhouse was a big favorite and will be passed down to the next generation. it's a hard sell wiht kids sometimes though. We had our share of teh plastic toy of the moment…Little Pet shop animals (plastic but not electronic) come to mind. I want to find the person who came up with the slogan “collect them all” and bury him with plastic toys. 🙂

  10. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    May 16, 2014

    @garyk, or don't buy them in the first place. 🙂

  11. tfcsd
    May 18, 2014

    If you think E-Waste is a problem; try reusing E-Waste before it is reprocessed (4Rs). In the past one could easily rescue items from a recycling/scrap pile and restore them to their original use or repurpose them (i.e. art) and no one cared. Now, when you try to reuse E-Waste, you get a plethora of sniveling, whimpering, and whining about new rules, regulations, and more (written mainly by insular paper pushers). Worse yet, they ask interfering questions to confirm their misgivings as if being resourceful has become criminal behavior.

  12. Eldredge
    May 28, 2014

    @Hailey – Probably a better solution, given the track record for contaminated paint ( among other issues). 


  13. Eldredge
    May 28, 2014

    @ Carol – You make a valid point. Electronic subassemblies have proliferated into consumer products that we don't think of as 'electronic' devices. We probably throw away several products that we should be recycling.

  14. ahdand
    May 28, 2014

    @Eldridge: Indeed, we must make sure to identify what items we can recycle and then make the maximum out of those items. 

  15. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    May 30, 2014

    @tfscsd, what do you think motivates the concerns of these folks? is it “We created rules and now people have to follow them”? or is there some safety/security concern? I wonder if there's a way to find a compromise.

  16. tfcsd
    May 31, 2014

    @ Hailey,

    It is much worse than “rules must be followed”. It is simplistic rules being made by simplistic people being expedient who may not comprehend all the complex rules of a complex world in the long run. There is a joke: there are two kinds of people in the world; those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't. Another example is game theory where you have win/lose lose/win games compared to lose/lose win/lose lose/win win/win games. One game has two outcomes while the last game has four outcomes. Now imagine the first person playing the first game (2 outcomes) against the last person playing the last game (4 outcomes). The last person would hopefully want the outcome to be win/win, but the first person (two states) seeing that the last person is winning would naturally think in his two games states that he is in a lose/win state where he is losing. The first person (2 outcomes) would then seek to make the second person lose and thus, by default, be in a win/lose state where the first person “wins”. The second person would see his win/win game outcome revert to only being win/lose or worse lose/lose (half of his 4 outcomes) and thus can only lose. The second person would try to convince the first that win/win is best for both, but the first person cannot or won't grasp that forth game state. Now here's the catch, if the world/economy is a four outcome game (or more (i.e. truel: 3 way duel)) then the optimal win/win state is now impossible and most likely could end up lose/lose with the first person still thinking the last person “won” (thus having misgivings until he completely “wins” or the other definitely loses). How does this blather apply to recycling? The new style recycler (under the current e-waste laws, security, insurance, and so on) sees e-waste as making money by only recycling (one R) while others may see e-waste as reduce/reuse/recycle (three Rs) (i.e. German auto recycling). The new style recycler (and lawmakers lurking somewhere in the mix) by “efficiency” and other “rules” have created a straight and narrow lock step path by eliminating multiple solutions they do not want or understand. This mindset difference is played out in greater contrast in third world countries where “modern” big solution recyclers push out the traditional recyclers (i.e. Zabbaleen, rag man, or old-style junk yards who made their living by sorting and reusing when more profitable). Lastly, lower primates and young children who learn to do a task one way in a group, deliberately impede others from doing that same task differently. Hope that answers your question.

  17. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    May 31, 2014

    @tfcsd, thanks for taking the time to answer…and it is very useful. I hope that these kinds of conversations help bring awareness to the situation so that your more sophisticated players (per your game theory example) become more common.

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