This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.
As a researcher at an organization called The Sustainability Consortium, I was part of the group that last year published the “Electronics Recycling Landscape” report. The study, funded by the Closed Loop Foundation, looked at major trends in the electronics industry as well as flows and potential volumes of used electronics in the U.S.
The research also assessed the attitudes and views of those participating in the country’s system for used electronics management.
This article follows up on that second part of the investigation, laying out some of the key talking points and emerging ideas in electronics recovery picked up through informal conversations with colleagues and stakeholders. This analysis is by no means a comprehensive list of all the issues in front of the industry today. Rather, the aim is to offer up a range of key topics to watch over the next year.
Small critiques of research
It may be helpful to start by looking back at the response to the report itself in 2016. We found it to be well received, with only two areas in which some stakeholders identified notable omissions.
First, it was noted we did not credit the state e-scrap programs for their material recovery accomplishments. That was a fair point – legislated state programs now in place in more than 20 states have been successful in diverting a significant amount of electronics into recovery systems, and they are playing an important role in the larger dialogue about how we will think about and measure used electronics collection.
The second criticism we heard was that we did not mention or cover the question of obsolescence, especially as related to software support for older hardware. This is an important topic directly influencing the generation of used electronic equipment and deserves a full consideration of the relevant issues and influences, so will not be considered here.
Nonetheless, the report did dig into some critical territory. Some of the big trends identified – electronics becoming smaller, lighter and more integrated; weight becoming an ineffective measure of program effectiveness; and the declining amounts of precious metals and other valuable materials in used devices – have continued on their respective trajectories.
In interviews last year, the overriding feeling across all stakeholders was a deep pessimism regarding the future of responsible used electronics management. Unfortunately, this has not abated and in fact is now accompanied by heightened uncertainty and, in some cases, frustration.
Certainly, some of the concerns we heard about working to shift management systems to the realities of a changing electronics stream were influenced by the fact that commodity prices fell in recent years. Prices have recovered some over the past 12 months, but they are still nowhere near the levels seen at the time many state programs were first put in place.
However, the frustration among some stakeholders runs deeper than just reactions to what’s been seen in markets. Disappointingly, conversations around design and management of small appliances, such as coffee makers and vacuum cleaners, have not started, and very little progress has been seen toward creating a more robust, responsible system.
But while pessimism does still permeate this space, there are reasons to be hopeful regarding developments and innovations to further responsible management.
Opportunities in developing trends
One of the trendiest terms in recycling right now is “circular economy,” and many organizations have projects or initiatives related to this field. At the Sustainability Consortium, we now offer the Circular Economy Toolbox, developed in partnership with the U.S. Chamber Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center and the Retail Industry Leadership Association. The Toolbox work has provided an opportunity to look across industries to see what is being described as circular, and it shows how loosely this term is applied.
The high visibility of this topic, though, should provide an expanded platform for electronics reuse and recycling. For electronics in general, the greatest opportunities lie in the evolution of true closed loop systems – one example of this can be seen in Dell’s use of recycled e-plastics in new monitors and HP recycling used ink cartridges into new ones.
The Internet of Things (IoT), another term growing in popularity, is increasingly popping up in industry conversations. Unfortunately, no one is sharing viable solutions for handling the predicted wave of devices and sensors connected to everyday objects, and at this point it’s not even clear if those devices and sensors can be isolated and collected.
However, seen from another perspective, the deployment of more IoT devices could indeed create more revenue opportunities for electronics recyclers. As the technology develops, more data centers may have to be distributed across the country since the sea of connected devices in houses, office buildings, public spaces, vehicles and other spots would produce an unprecedented amount of information that would be impossible to send to centralized server farms in a few remote places. Smaller, regional server farms will be needed to manage and filter the initial data transmitted. This opens the door of opportunity for local or regional systems that will be required to handle this equipment at end of life.
This could mean that rather than a continued consolidation of electronics refurbishers and recyclers, the industry may actually see an increase in the number of organizations specializing in “just electronics recycling” or “just electronics refurbishment.” Our “Landscape” report proposed possible solutions for more efficient collection and treatment of used electronics, and the regionalization concept could help make such efficiency a reality by reducing transportation costs and centralizing labor.
Another emerging trend in the realm of processing efficiency can be seen in robotics technology, which could become a more prominent part of the suite of tools available to e-scrap stakeholders. The potential for robots to do full product disassembly, as has been shown by Apple’s Liam machine, is part of the equation. Equally important, however, is the possibility of operators integrating robotics to better sort materials in existing facilities.
In the municipal recycling space, robotics are going a step further, with emerging systems from companies such as BHS and AMP Robotics utilizing artificial intelligence to better understand material streams over time and may eventually provide data to help operators optimize their processing lines.
A final trend that could carry notable repercussions for electronics recovery can be seen in batteries and power storage systems. A primary goal for the Responsible Battery Coalition, a newly formed initiative that The Sustainability Consortium is partner to, is to identify viable recovery technologies for lithium ion batteries from transportation, stationary and industrial storage applications and develop the infrastructure to manage them. Since any technology would need to be chemistry agnostic, or at least “chemistry flexible,” there may be interesting applications for batteries from electronics as well. Electronics recycling will also be featured in this work, since integrated electronics are common for next-generation transport and stationary batteries.
Shifts in measurement and guidelines
Electronics recycling decision-makers would also be wise to keep tabs on state-level regulations as well as standards helping to guide design decisions for new electronics.
The regulatory space is interesting because developments in state electronics recycling programs most clearly reflect how the changing product stream is affecting used electronics management. Two developments are particularly noteworthy – that of convenience measures and a renewed interest in exploring “eco fees” or some other pay-for-service model.
The emergence of convenience as an alternative to weight-based producer obligations in multiple states is generating conversation. In previous research at The Sustainability Consortium, product-return convenience was identified as an important part of used electronics management by a wide range of stakeholders, but those stakeholders struggled to agree on how such a framework should be implemented, or what would be a reasonable measure of success. Stakeholders will be watching closely as programs in Canada work to fine-tune their own measurement models. For example, an updated version of the producer-funded system in Ontario was approved at the end of last year, and it should provide a platform for new competitive program models. It will also include obligations around reuse and refurbishment.
At the same time, industry standards that promote sustainability in electronics design are also seeing the impacts of changes in the electronics landscape. For example, ULE 110, a standard for mobile phones, was just released and is planned to be included for use by the EPEAT system. At the same time, the standards development process seems to be shifting from narrow, issue-specific considerations to include a broader, more holistic life-cycle approach to sustainable product development and management. The Sustainability Consortium supports this type of strategy.
On the downside, reuse and refurbishment are not as widely represented in some standard revisions, and criteria may not stretch beyond what is already in place. There will undoubtedly be more attention given to this topic as the current standards are finalized. The area to watch, though, will be the revision to the current IEEE 1680.1 Personal Computer Products standard. This will incorporate the results of current conversations on how better to assess sustainability as products evolve.
More bright ideas
Apart from the developments noted above that involve a large cross section of the electronics industry, a variety of projects from individual groups show potential for innovation and new solutions to maximize the responsible management of all the types of devices on the market today.
For example, earlier this year, Arrow Electronics sponsored a case study competition for Denver-area college students to bring new technology ideas to production. Following on the model of reaching college students to help solve technology issues, Arrow is partnering with Colorado State University to develop a cross-discipline course on electronics recovery to help bring new solutions and perspectives to electronics reverse supply chains.
On the research front, two projects hold exciting possibilities. The first, called Value Recovery from Used Electronics, is being spearheaded by the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative. The first phase, which concluded in December 2016, determined what the issues, opportunities and roadblocks are for value recovery of materials used in hard disk drives (HDDs). The outcome was an implementable plan for recovery of the metals in HDDs, and a pilot project is currently under development.
The second research initiative of note is a recent study from the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology, which worked in collaboration with the Consumer Technology Association and Staples Innovation Laboratory. The research provides a look at the material profiles of electronics technology and how such profiles have evolved over the past few decades.
The first phase focused on products currently entering the recycling stream, with an emphasis on toxic materials such as lead and mercury. Future phases of the work will further develop the initial models to include material profiles for emerging consumer technologies and include a broader portfolio of materials. The electronic device material composition information is extremely important and will provide very useful information to the electronics recovery industry, depending on how and when it is shared.
Meeting the uncertainty with flexibility
As that research and other industry trends make clear, the electronics recycling landscape will continue to evolve and bring with it new opportunities and technologies to responsibly manage electronic devices beyond their first useful life. Because of the high degree of uncertainty surrounding what electronics will even look like in five years, the recovery industry will need to continue to innovate and become more flexible in terms of what is recovered.
I look forward to seeing where this journey leads, and how used electronics will be responsibly managed in the future.
Carole Mars is the senior research lead at The Sustainability Consortium and can be contacted at [email protected].