electronics waste

Outsmarting Waste in Electronics

August 15th, 2014

If you visited the seashore this summer, as I did, you might not have glimpsed any of the enormous ocean patches of garbage — one of which is a tangled mess of plastics and other garbage twice the size of Texas. But you may have seen this week’s estimate that >300 million smartphones were shipped during 2Q-2014.

While at the shore and reading Outsmart Waste, by Tom Szaky (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), I reflected on how the electronics industry can help outsmart waste while still enjoying profitability.

Szaky writes, “Our waste is a monumental problem. Over the past 100 years the amount of waste that humanity produces has increased by almost 10,000%. Developed countries produce more than 4 pounds of waste per person per day. Of that staggering volume, it is estimated that 25% ends up in our oceans…” In his book, he focuses less on e-waste, which has additional human and environmental health issues (as TFI has covered in blog posts (example), articles, and publications in which we’ve been quoted).

The mission of Szaky’s company is to “eliminate the idea of waste.” TerraCycle has climbed to $20M annual revenue since Szaky founded it in 2002, and each year has been profitable. The company refurbishes millions of cell phones and printer cartridges each year, and “upcycles” — makes new products out of — non-refurbishable, non-recyclable products such as cigarette butts and soiled diapers that otherwise would be buried, incinerated, or enlarging the ocean patches.

A key culprit to the world’s waste problem, as analyzed by Szaky, is tough-to-recycle complexgarbage — contrasted with pure aluminum, glass, and wood-pulp items that are economically recycled today. Guess what electronic waste is. Yes…it’s complex. Circuit boards, mixed plastics in enclosures and connectors, hard drives, CDs, and petroleum-based packaging are examples of complex products that cost more to separate and process into raw materials.

Even Szaky, whose company’s revenue is based largely on upcycling complex garbage, says that “conscious buying” is the answer to stemming burgeoning unusable waste streams. He writes in Chapter 2 of Outsmart Waste, “When looking at the root cause of garbage, we as consumers bear a large part of the responsibility. Garbage is predicated on our individual consumption.” Our choices of durable products, rather than those planned to swiftly become obsolete, sends the demand signal “design for longevity.” And buying used durable goods contributes to the economy more so than does wasting usable products in landfills.

We teach designers of electronic products how to design for durability, refurbishment, and profitable recycling. We show executives how Design for Environment (DfE) reduces costs, increases profitability, and bolsters brand. We coach operations executives in using their existing equipment and facilities for better leverage and higher ROI, rather than automatically just buying more stuff. Done right, DfE diminishes waste as profits expand.

So, let’s design durable smart phones, printers without consumable cartridges, more solid state drives than hard-disk drives, products with fewer and smaller circuit boards, components designed for automatic separation and recycling of high-value materials, minimal and compostable/recyclable packaging, and products whose DfE principles also make them more reliable, reusable, efficient, and economical.

Want to know how your electronics company can outsmart waste and design for the environment? Head over to the Technology Forecasters, Inc. Page


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