The electronics industry has expanded tremendously in the modern era. With the growth of personal and corporate electronics, it's critical to consider the impacts that e-waste has on the environment. Electronics manufacturers now, more than ever, have a social responsibility to develop green electronics and promote proper electronics recycling programs among consumers.

Increased Usage and Expanded Scope of Electronicsgreen-electronics.jpg

More than 50 years after Moore's Law was introduced, electronics are still progressing at an impressive rate and personal electronics usage is soaring. Think about the common electronics in a given household; mobile phones, tablets, televisions, personal computers, desktop computers, and gaming consoles are just a sample of the electronics found in a typical household. In fact, the average person globally now owns 3.64 electronic devices. The United States alone can throw out over 47 million computers, 27 million televisions, and 141 million mobile devices, according to Bloomberg.

What's more is that the scope of electronics is broadening into every market segment. Consumers are beginning to demand higher connectivity in products from traditional industries. Automotive electronics, for example, are much more complex than they were in cars manufactured even a decade ago. The burgeoning Internet of Things market similarly requires a higher degree of connectivity and electronics complexity in familiar devices like thermostats, refrigerators, and security systems. Electronics are even getting closer to our own bodies with the advent of wearable and even ingestible electronics.

Impact on the Environment

With the expanded impact of electronics in our lives, it's no surprise that electronics are similarly having an impact on the environment. Of the electronics disposed each year in the United States, only 25% is recycled properly. When not disposed of properly, materials used in electronics like cadmium, lead, PVC, and others can be detrimental to the earth. Those particularly impacted are communities in developing parts of the world, where uncontrolled dumping or recycling can result in hazardous materials being released into the environment.

Electronics Recycling

Unfortunately, electronics recycling has reached a point of diminishing monetary returns in recent years. Recyclers traditionally wanted to recycle electronics to recover the relatively high concentrations of gold and other precious metals that had good value. However, with the reduction in both size and amount of precious metals used in electronics today, that return is no longer guaranteed or even viable as a means of breaking even. Less manual disassembly is occurring and shredding of whole products is the norm in preparation for what limited recovery can be done.

Recycling does still continue, however, regardless of the value of the materials that can be recovered due to a variety of legal and voluntary requirements. Many US states have passed take-back laws for electronics requiring used electronics to be recycled in their state with the original manufacturers, at least in part, footing the bill to pay for the recycling activities. The EU WEEE regulation requires certain levels of recycling of electronics and reporting by the OEMs on their sales each year to fund the recycling infrastructure. And many voluntary eco-labels such as EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) require manufacturers to provide take-back services for the electronics they sell.

All of this will keep recycling going for the foreseeable future; however, repair and reuse can provide better, more economic, solutions to help electronics avoid the landfill.

Repair and Reuse

Repair and reuse are a step above recycling. The ability to repair electronics leads to a higher reuse rate of electronics, thereby avoiding materials that would need to go to recycling and potentially ending up in a landfill. However, as electronics become more and more compact and complex, repair has become more difficult. Manufacturers struggle with balancing the demand for smaller, sleeker mobile products with those that are more repairable and reusable. The newest generation of tablets, cell phones and portable notebooks are harder not only to repair but to recycle in a way that provides value at end of life. There is a need for improved repairability for these products.

Electronics Goes Green Forum

As electronics recycling reaches a point of diminishing returns and repair and reuse become more challenging, better value recovery methods must be explored. iNEMI is hosting a forum September 6, immediately prior to the Electronics Goes Green conference (September 7-9) in Berlin. The forum will discuss how the electronics industry might develop — and support — a value recovery approach for electronics reuse and recycling. What can be done now, before regulation is established, to support a sustainable, circular economy for electronics? Make plans now to join the discussion.

iNEMI Projects

In addition to the forum, the two iNEMI projects listed below are addressing the need for value recovery in reuse, repair and recycling:

If you are interested in either of these projects, contact Mark Schaffer (iNEMI) for additional details.