Today, electronic waste is the fastest growing stream of waste globally. Even if in several countries, legislation is in place to ban the irresponsible exportation of e-waste, lawmakers underestimate what could be done design wise to improve the status quo. Simple global design strategies could be implemented to prevent waste, encourage repair and create a more efficient recycling process. A well-considered e-waste collection system is essential to promote re-use and repair.
The first step should be the differentiated collection of reusable electronics and defective devices to be recycled. Electronics should also be collected according to different product typologies. This would facilitate both recycling and the recovery of components for repair, which now are often purposely produced.
Users should be able to return old or obsolete appliances regardless of brand or year of manufacture to any retail shop or official collection point free of charge. When buying a new product, retailers should inform users about their rights and duties, and about the services offered by the retailer as a collection centre.
Legislation should oblige manufacturers to guarantee the user’s right to repair. This can only be achieved if the availability of spare parts and the interchangeability of components are guaranteed, if user manuals are made freely available, and if the reparation can also be performed by independent repair shops.
A reasonable ratio between the costs of spare parts and the price of the device when new must be regulated. Also, a minimum product lifespan threshold should be defined. The product warranty should minimally correspond to this lifespan, if not extend further. Taxes should be imposed on single use or hard to reuse products and components.
To make sure users can make an informed choice when buying a new product. A labelling system should be introduced that clearly states the durability and repairability of the product. If producers can engineer obsolescence, then durability can be estimated precisely.
Simple global strategies to design innovative products for a more efficient recycling process could also be adopted. Designers and engineers are often unaware of the recycling process, the technologies in place and the complications caused by the constant miniaturising of components.
For instance, all electronic objects are assembled with an infinite variety of screws chosen independently by each manufacturer, which, in some cases are even custom made. This is a preferred choice for some brands as it forces the user to rely on the manufacturer when needing repairs. This is less of a problem in the formal recycling sector, but it still makes products more difficult to access to remove hazardous components, and it slows down the work of manual labour. An unformatted screwing system is an even bigger challenge for developing countries. There, people often have access to just a few tools, while the recovery of components is much more common than in developed countries where electronic products are simply shredded with the aim of obtaining new raw materials. Establishing a more systemic and uniform screwing system would facilitate the disassembly process and encourage the recovery of still usable components which are often unnecessarily shredded or damaged during the recycling process.
To understand how to better design electronic products for recycling, it is important to know what the most common technologies in place are. Products are first manually processed to remove hazardous components, then shredded and separated using water, an eddy current separator to separate ferrous from non-ferrous materials, and digital visual recognition. Multi materiality can therefore complicate and even interfere with the recycling process.
Washing machines, for instance, often have a top made of coated but porous chipboard wood that, if submerged in water, sinks together with ferrous materials. Glass will break in the shredding process if not removed in advance, and its transparency makes it almost impossible to separate using visual recognition. Concrete mixed with iron is also a common material used as a counterweight. However, it is a terrible design choice, considering the fact that an eddy current separator will recognise the mixed material as ferrous.
A common trend in electronics is the miniaturisation of products. This has increased the already widespread use of glue to attach components in order to save space. Designing objects with more intuitive connectors or clamping systems would enable a more precise separation of materials and efficient recycling. In fact, the most common problem for recyclers in both developed and developing countries is the access to and removal of batteries and hazardous components, which is mandatory to guarantee the safety of the labourers and to protect the environment.
Nowadays, objects are often designed as seamless shells with complex gluing or connections that do not allow for an easy access to and removal of hazardous components. In other cases, batteries are placed in unreachable locations between other parts. A universal system to label hazardous components is also completely absent. While this is a limited problem in the formal recycling sector, it is a major issue in developing countries where the recycling of electronics is often performed by untrained labour.
Warning signs would help boost an awareness of the dangers of e-waste. On the other hand, excessive safety regulations can also create a problem. The chemical composition of fire retardants renders plastics unrecyclable. Manufacturers often overuse them just to make sure that safety tests are passed. In other cases, fire retardant companies lobby for the wider use of their products.
Sometimes even minor changes to the design and manufacturing processes can make a major difference. The use of visual recognition technologies in the sorting of waste has great potential but has not been fully explored so far. Electric cables are commonly covered in black rubber due to the darkness and opacity of the surface. They are often not recognized by visual detectors. The use of coloured rubber or even a patterned surface could avoid such a problem.
If we apply this concept to a fully electronic product, we can imagine a scenario in which objects are delivered to recyclers with an embedded digital material passport in the form of a QR code, for example. Often objects are completely non-transparent and the constant development of new plastics makes it difficult to separate them precisely. In developing countries, rudimentary and toxic methods are used, such as burning plastics, to determine the composition of the materials by the way the polymers burn or the colour of the flames. A universal colour code could be applied to components and materials to separate materials in a precise manner, resulting in multiple streams of well-sorted waste suitable to be recycled.
Text transcribed from video
Originally published in 2019 as part of Ore Streams