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Climbing down from our mountain of e-waste

Smart electronics should be adaptable, collaborative, rentable and easier to repair

May 27, 2015 2:00AM ET

Nowadays, electronic devices are doing more than just sensing and displaying data. They also listen, speak, measure, illuminate and collaborate with other electronics, making up a class of products called the Internet of Things, connected devices or sometimes wearables.

Connected devices show huge potential for resource efficiency and better quality of life. A smart window-shade and air-conditioning system in communication with each other can heat and cool a building using less energy while increasing the comfort of its occupants. But this new frontier has a big consequence: The more everyday products contain electronics, the more e-waste will be produced.

E-waste refers to electronic devices that have reached the end of their useful lives. With more of our products becoming e-waste, we must rethink the life cycles of our smart electronics and the materials we use to build them.

Last month the Green Electronics Council convened a group of electronics experts — including manufacturers, consultants, academics and nongovernmental organizations — at Yale’s School of Business to discuss the threats of e-waste and to begin implementing a plan to prepare us for this next era in product design, use and disposal. That plan involves moving toward a circular economy model of production, use, retirement and reincarnation and away from our current use-and-retire system.

One obvious obstacle is the sheer number of devices that are being retired each year. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that 50 million tons (PDF) of e-waste are generated annually, fueled by consumers’ purchase of multiple single-use devices.

Consider that every year, $21 billion worth of gold and silver (PDF), is placed in electronic devices. Such rare minerals are too expensive to simply lose every time someone throws away a pedometer. Currently, only 15 to 20 percent of the world’s e-waste is recycled.

The global proliferation of Internet-based technology has increased the number of electronic devices ending up in places with insufficiently regulated waste collection systems. For instance, regardless of where electronics are used, 85 percent of all e-waste ends up in India in places lacking proper facilities to receive them safely.

Another problem is the diversity of materials that go into any one device. Many of these materials (metal, glass, plastic) do not decompose at the end of their lives, and because they aren’t as valuable as gold and silver, their recycle rates are quite low. Exacerbating this problem, many of these devices — particularly consumer electronics, which require high degrees of design and engineering innovation — are beholden to fickle fashion trends, short product life cycles and planned obsolescence.

Instead of owning a different iPhone every year, how about renting one and paying manufacturers for insurance and services?

Finally, a lack of standardized regulations — European countries use the Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive as a guideline for rules on product disposal and recycling, but other countries don’tand variable electronics collection processes lead to incongruous production and disposal cycles.

As challenging as these problems are, there are many steps we can take to alleviate them.

For one, business models should move away from an ownership-based economy. Instead of owning a different iPhone every year, how about renting one and paying manufacturers for insurance and services? This ensures that customers have the latest and greatest electronics and that businesses benefit from having ongoing relationships with their customers rather than ephemeral transactions.

We should also make electronics easier to repair and upgrade. The French government just announced a new directive that requires electronics manufacturers to disclose to consumers information about a product’s life cycle and the ease with which it can be repaired.

Another key area of research will be greening the all-important cloud. If everything becomes a connected device, the amount of data stored in the cloud will balloon to epic proportions. Not only will that pose a storage issue, but it will also require a huge amount of energy to cool the server farms that make up the cloud — which is not very environmentally friendly. Additionally, the data centers that make up the cloud are real places full of computer hardware consuming huge amounts of plastics, metals and rare earth minerals and needing to be replaced and recycled periodically. Many data storage providers are now seeking ways to optimize their data centers.

Finally, we need to create incentives that reward innovation in green electronics. The best way to encourage sustainable design is for governments and large institutions to insist that the electronics they purchase meet certain guidelines. We also need new finance mechanisms to help offset the up-front costs of bringing new technologies to market.

A connected and convenient world with adaptable and collaborative products is in our reach. But if we don’t make a concerted and systematic effort now, we face the very real possibility of not having enough materials to keep up with skyrocketing demand. 

Sarah Krasley is the senior sustainable manufacturing program lead at Autodesk. She develops technology tools for engineers to create more sustainably designed products and factories. She also consults on sustainable labor projects in the ready-made garment industry.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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