Electronics manufacturers are making their devices more sustainable every day, with longer-lasting products, reused materials, take-back programs and designs that have repair and recycling in mind from the start, industry experts told an audience of e-scrap recyclers last year.
But with so many different aspects of sustainability to consider, some give-and-take among them is inevitable, the experts added. And device recycling must grow and become easier and more transparent.
“In order to lower the overall footprint of the material and also the product, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Allison Ward, senior sustainable materials engineer at Dell Technologies, said during a panel discussion at the 2023 E-Scrap Conference in September. She joined Scott Shackelford, design for repair engineer at Google, and Cassie Gruber, director of business solutions at Jabil, to explore how sustainability is shaping the future of electronic devices.
The three companies and others in the industry have focused more and more on reducing the environmental impact of their devices in recent years. Dell is working toward a goal of 50% recycled or renewable materials in its products by 2030, for example, and Jabil acquired recycler Retronix in November to boost its own circularity work.
Shackelford pointed to Google’s focus on supporting the software on its devices for longer, extending their usable lifespans. The company this month also voiced support for a right-to-repair proposal in Oregon.
“The most sustainable product that you’ll ever have is probably the product that’s in your hands right now. Its carbon footprint has already been established,” Shackelford said in September. “And so design longevity is the key to really – I’m not going to say solve the puzzle, but really answer a lot of key questions. How can we ensure that the products you have right now last longer?”
Such moves can collide with other concerns, such as reparability, durability, carbon footprints and customers’ desires, the panelists said. A device that’s easy to take apart and reassemble is also often heavier and bulkier, for example.
“I can tell you most designers when you tell them, ‘Hey, design this to be recyclable,’ you might as well just spit in their spaghetti, because what you just told them was design something to fail,” Shackelford said. “They want to design the Mona Lisa, they want to design the statue of David, they want to design something that will last forever.”
Designers are starting to see the appeal of balancing varied priorities, however, Shackelford added. He and the other panelists also said more must be done to improve device sustainability even further, such as with clear and proactive regulations, better recycling programs for the public and, in Dell’s case, the pursuit of renewable materials.
“We need to make it easy for customers to recycle their old electronics,” Ward said, pointing to the industry’s goals of relying less on virgin materials in the future. “Dell’s not the only one with a recycled content goal. There’s just not enough (captured) material out there to satisfy all those requirements.”
Gruber also called on the electronics manufacturing and recycling industries to share data and collaborate in other ways, even with competitors.
“To achieve our goals and our customers’ goals, we have to come together,” she said.