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Study Looks to Help Inform Electronics Materials Management

The multiphase research project is intended to inform sustainable materials management for the consumer technology industry, and provide insight to recyclers.

Staples has offered drop-off sites for wasted electronics at its stores since 2007 and now accepts up to seven pieces a day free. Since that time, more retailers and manufacturers have worked to help divert fast-accumulating discarded electronics. But managing these materials remains a pressing challenge, especially as the stream continues to evolve, as a recent study between the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, Staples Sustainable Innovation Lab and the Consumer Technology Association confirmed.

The multi-phase research project is intended to inform sustainable materials management for the consumer technology industry, and provide insight to recyclers. Phase one looked at products entering households from 1990 to 2015. Phase two of this ongoing study, will be more proactive. The plan is to anticipate new trends to help determine best ways to manage end-of-life electronics before they reach that stage.

One finding is that the projected tsunami of traditional e-waste is not happening; actually net consumption is decreasing, notes Callie Babbitt, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and lead study author.

Consumers are buying more, but the products weigh less. And televisions are the main driver in this reduction, as CRTs have been replaced with flat panels. Even flat panels are becoming lighter with the shift from LCDs to LEDs.

Still, less net material presents complexities. For one, these smaller, lighter products have driven up lithium ion battery consumption, which created new policy considerations. Industry experts are determining how to remove batteries in an environmentally responsible way, as well as addressing safety risks at recycling operations as these batteries have been the source of many fires.

Then there is the need to develop technology for recycling flat panel displays, some which contain mercury bulbs.

“Flat panels are lighter and don’t have lead, which was an issue with CRTs. But can we recycle them and other evolving products in a meaningful way?” asks Babbitt.

Further it’s harder to disassemble smaller, lighter products.

Looking at what product types will likely enter the waste stream moving forward, as well as the current stream, will help determine best ways to manage materials and cost to do so, says Jason Linnell, executive director, National Center for Electronics Recycling.

“We’ve seen the significance most dramatically with mobile devices. They’re smaller but sold in high volumes," Linnell says. “Meanwhile, TV monitors and printers may not be sold in as high a volume by unit, but account for a majority on a weight basis. We have to know how to set up to manage each product type.... From a policy perspective, what we can do is still a little unclear, but we know we have a problem with measure performance and goals tied to total pounds collected."

“We need to re-evaluate requirements under some state laws with regard to collection targets manufacturers have to meet to avoid penalties," he adds. "And there are implications for the recycling industry in terms of how they manage waste and how they bill, as they now charge by the pound.” 

Illinois moved from a pound-based goal to a model where manufacturers must provide a certain number of collection locations to service the entire state, with no pounds requirement.

“It’s an experiment to see if that approach can work. The idea is we recognize problems with associating goals with what’s collected and want to ensure there is full coverage in terms of places consumers can take old devices. There have also been discussions around measuring by unit types coming in, but asking [recyclers] to pull out every unit in a Gaylord box and categorize it by product type is not feasible at this time,” says Linnell.

The study began by looking in a rearview mirror; next will come predictive modeling, says Mark Buckley, vice president of sustainability, Staples.

“How long can we expect a product to be in consumers’ hands, and at one point will they be ready to recycle? If you’re a recycler you want to know how to plan for recovery and what the secondary market will look like for materials,” Buckley says.

Meanwhile some businesses on the upstream side are looking at their role moving forward.

“Until now, many of us looked at our individual silo. I think we need to look as part of a bigger system rather than just at our own operations. We need to strategize with partners including manufacturers and recyclers to make this work,” says Buckley.

Study findings from phase two will be discussed at the January 2018 Consumer Electronics show.

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