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The four Rs of electronics waste recycling

How Design for Environment decreases product costs and increases e-waste end-of-life value

The four Rs of electronics  waste recycling

by Pamela J. Gordon, President, Technology Forecasters, Inc.  

Worldwide, electronic waste streams are soaring, with enormous costs to communities, the environment and companies needing to comply with “producer responsibility” laws. Plus, “wasting” materials in electronics prevents industry from economically reusing these materials in other new products, when many of these materials are becoming scarce – increasing prices and lengthening lead times.  

Fortunately, today electronic-product designers are being trained to minimize resources in their products (called Design for Reduction), leveraging existing products and modules in new products (Design for Reuse), and maximizing the value of products at their end-of-life (Design for Recycling). Together, these techniques are referred to as Design for Environment (DtE) and they yield advantages for consumers, businesses, communities, and the planet. A fourth element to consider is composting (or to continue the three Rs theme) Design for Rot.  

Design for Reduction
A strategic Design for Environment (DfE) element that most designers fail to consider is to use as little hardware in the product as possible.

“Dematerializing” hardware and packaging – while maximizing customer value – reduces the producer’s costs and risks, and attracts environmentally-aware customers. Meeting customers’ requirements well with minimal hardware means less mining, less processing, less mass to transport and store, less to power and cool, and less to reclaim and recycle.

Design for Reduction is conducted at the time of product concept. It starts with three questions: 

1. Does the company have another hardware product whose functionality could include the newly desired capability – and thus enable the use of one hardware product instead of two? 

2. Could this product’s functionality be achieved by leveraging another company’s hardware platform, and charging customers for the additional functionality and service? 

3. Could the functionality that the product provides be differentiated as software or a service, instead of hardware?

If it’s determined that new and different hardware is absolutely necessary, then companies should leverage several factors to minimize the mass and power consumption of the product, including the use of thinner enclosures (or none); less packaging (or none); packaging made of recycled or bio-materials; and fewer parts, etc.

Imbuing products with Design for Reduction results in profitability, and the use of smaller, lighter hardware translates to less waste at the end of the product’s life. Plus, smaller, sleeker product designs can give better access to reusable parts – providing another business benefit of dematerialization.  

Design for Reuse
A great reuse strategy is to design a common module across numerous product lines that can be manufactured in economical volume, deployed for efficient refurbishment, and used again several times even after a product’s end-of-life. Likewise, exterior housings can be designed to enclose a wide number of products; if these housings avoid paints and other finishes that easily scratch, then they can be reused many times across products and customers. 

In the manufacturing stage, packaging received by suppliers can be returned for reuse if the distance between the companies is short (otherwise, the environmental and cost impacts of transit could easily negate the savings from reuse). Or, manufacturers can reuse packaging material for packing finished products and spare parts. At the point of sale, retailers and distributors can even have customers leave the packaging for reuse when purchasing the product. 

Another way to think of Design for Reuse is “responsibly delaying recycling.” Why not get as much use of the mined, fabricated, assembled, and shipped product, modules, parts, and packaging as possible, before the resource-intensive recycling stage? The field of “reuse” can also be quite profitable for recycling, distribution and contract manufacturing companies. There is a growing business among these companies to test, refurbish if appropriate, and sell working electronic components and modules.  

Design for Recycling
Placing used electronics in landfills isn’t smart – neither economically nor for human and environmental health. Fortunately, more and more consumers and organizations are sending electronics to responsible recyclers whose byproducts are gold, tin, aluminum, tantalum and other important materials for new electronic products.  

Recyclers’ profits are largest when products are designed for “Economic Recycling.” Recycling is economical when the value of disassembled parts and materials is greater than the cost of disassembling them. In addition, product designers can greatly influence the economic recycling of their products, by employing several principles, including: the use a minimal number of fasteners; use of colour coding; avoiding permanent bonding between different or valuable parts; grouping of any hazardous parts or materials in one area of the product, for quick and safe removal; and by providing pictorial instructions for quick, safe and economic disassembly.

Design for Recycling techniques also make original manufacturing as well as reuse/upgrades/refurbishment faster and more economical. Finally, when choosing material suppliers, manufacturers can give preference to those leveraging responsibly recycled and labelled components and materials.   

The Fourth R: Design for Rot
Good choices in materials for electronic products and packaging can include renewable, recycled and compostable materials – as alternatives to virgin, mined materials. One of the numerous examples of renewable, compostable and relatively inexpensive materials is mycelium packaging, made from custom-grown mushrooms, which is strong enough for companies to package their sensitive electronic products.

The advantages of biological materials for electronics and packaging are that they are renewable and tend to be lighter and more moldable than their petroleum-based alternatives. Their prices and availability are not dragged down by shortages of non-renewable materials, and eco-educated consumers are fascinated by renewable materials – differentiating the product from the rest of the pack and leading to higher revenues.

Note the recent publicity given to transient, dissolving electronics. Three USA universities collaborated to develop a biodegradable electronics technology made of ultrathin sheets of silicon, magnesium, silk and other biocompatible materials. They completely and harmlessly dissolve in water at different rates depending on the structure of the silk, taking from a couple of minutes to a few years.  

Training in DfE 
Whereas Design for Environment principles are not difficult, still designers and other members of product-launch teams need to be trained in DfE. Training in DfE is also a good idea for recyclers, contract manufacturers, and other organizations who would profit from coaching their customers in designing products for economical recycling and other aspects of DfE. Online training is available.

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