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Sustainable Electronics

Electronics -- computers, stereos, mobile phones, etc. -- are rapidly becoming a big part of the waste stream. That's bad: not only are these devices often still functional (if no longer "useful"), they typically contain toxic metals which should not get into ground water; electronics make up 70 percent of all hazardous waste. Governments are waking up to the need for better electronics recycling, and so are manufacturers -- and designers. This week saw a good Los Angeles Times piece (here republished in the Seattle Times) about moves in the electronics industry to become less wasteful in their designs.

The key driver in this is the increase in regulations, especially in Europe, demanding that manufacturers accept their products back for recycling. WorldChanging Ally #1 even gets quoted:

"If companies know they're going to see these things again, will they design them differently? You bet they will," said Bruce Sterling, a lecturer at Pasadena's influential Art Center College of Design, which next year will include "sustainable design" classes in its curriculum.

(I expect that he'll appreciate the academic attribution, not "science fiction writer/Viridian Pope-Emperor.")

Sustainability Sundays contributor Gil Friend has written extensively on the results of European "take back" laws. For many companies, the initial reaction to these sorts of regulations is to fear the added expense; as it turns out, many firms are able to increase profits by taking a fresh look at manufacturing and product components. Although the Times article is spun as a "oh, look at how hard it is to abide by these green rules!" piece, it actually does a good job of demonstrating that sustainable design can drive companies to seek simpler, less costly design practices:

Designers also try to reduce the number of parts or materials used in a single product, making it simpler to sort and recycle."Four years ago, we did a survey of our usage of plastic resin," Thompson said. "We were using way too many grades of polystyrene. We standardized on a limited number."A 1984 Panasonic television, for instance, had 13 types of plastics, 39 plastic parts and took 140 seconds to take apart. The 2000 model contained just two types of plastic, eight plastic parts and took 78 seconds to disassemble.

The need to make electronics more recyclable is one of the more subtle drivers pushing the increased use of aluminum for product cases -- it's much more readily recycled than plastic.

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit from the article is the observation that printers seem to be the least recyclable electronic component.

"But these things," [Silicon Salvage owner Chuck Hulse] gestured at an 8-foot stack of printers, "they're very much throwaway items."He ticks off their liabilities: too many types of plastic in a single printer, too much paint, and they're contaminated with fire retardants."This is the hardest thing for me to deal with," Hulse said. "We just have no way to economically recycle these things."

Paperless office, where are you when we need you?

Comments (1)

An advantage to businesses of "take-back" design is the increased likelihood of future customers. If I essentially lease my PC, television, etc., then I've entered into a very-long-term relationship with the companies who provide the service of these devices. That's powerful marketing.


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