Will wearable technology destroy advances in recycling?

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This article is sponsored by Call2Recycle.

Recent advances in wearable technology are challenging our definition of clothing and technology as they converge to improve our quality of life. Inventors are developing more sophisticated and essential products that are quickly being integrated into the fabric of our lives. These smart electronic devices can be worn on the body as an accessory during everyday life.

Fitness trackers, smart sunglasses, sports trackers and even smart socks, shorts and sleepwear are a far cry from the first wearable technologies — children’s athletic shoes featuring heels that light up when they struck the ground. These new devices use Internet of Things technology to exchange data with a manufacturer, operator or other connected devices, with no human involvement.

Disassembly is difficult

While the products vary widely, wearable technologies have one thing in common. Users depend on battery power to use the devices wherever they go. Batteries are incorporated into products using glue or through full integration into the products’ frames. This design approach reduces manufacturing costs and decreases the size and weight of the end product, a huge advantage for the user.

But the design also makes it virtually impossible to remove the batteries and successfully reclaim the constituent metals. It is much more difficult to detach and disassemble the technology from a garment or product than from a cell phone or power tool. It often involves two or more steps: first, the wearable device must be removed from the garment. Then, the battery must be removed from the wearable device. 

Wearable designs point to a troubling trend in the recycling market. Product design is becoming increasingly disconnected from how we manage the product’s components, such as batteries, at end-of-life. The resulting impact on the environmental is substantial and real — more waste in landfills and a decline in the use of recycled materials in the manufacture of new products. At a time that manufacturers finally have learned to incorporate recycled materials into their products, the ability to recycle these materials is being reduced.

This doesn’t just apply to the wearable technology market. Consumer groups openly have complained about how difficult it is to disassemble, reuse and recycle electronic devices from Apple, Samsung and Microsoft based on their product design features. These criticisms are driving action in Europe, where the European Union is reviewing a new design directive that would require the removability of batteries from such products sold in its member countries.

Challenges of recycling industry

Consumer pressure notwithstanding, the recycling industry has been slow to respond for several reasons. While several recycling companies have developed the ability to perform this type of recycling, they have not found it economically feasible due to the diversity of products and processing complications. Recycling is a razor-thin-margin business; recyclers cannot afford to invest in technologies that do not deliver a short-term positive return.

Recycling is also a complex process. Three factors must be in place to make it financially worthwhile for recyclers to invest in the equipment and technology processes to recycle the materials:

  • Clear labeling of the composition of the constituent parts so the materials can be easily separated. 
  • Easy disassembly; the more resources required to take products apart, the higher the processing cost.
  • No or low contamination, enabling recyclers to generate a "clean enough" stream to make recycled materials useable in new manufacturing.

Until market conditions change and products are designed to take these factors into account, it will not be profitable for the recycling industry to invest its resources in recycling wearable technologies to retrieve the component metals.

Economic factors also must be considered. The cratering of the commodities market has made it cheaper for technology manufacturers to buy virgin (mined) materials compared to their recycled equivalents simply because the latter costs more. Although reclaiming products is preferable from an environmental perspective, most manufacturers will seek the lowest price for metals, whatever its source.

Mining new materials has other disadvantages. Most major mineral deposits are found in remote regions of the Congo, Bolivia and China. These areas are often governed by factions that are not always sympathetic to Western development. Some local residents may welcome the jobs, but others can be resentful of outside interests using their environment to mine for rare resources. As a result, securing scarce materials such as rare earth metals and cobalt is increasingly expensive and risky. 

What does it mean for battery recycling?

As one of the first adopters of wearable technology, the Americas face a heightened challenge to ensure that the valuable constituent parts of any technologies can be reclaimed and recycled. Our ability to design and develop new technologies must be directly linked to how we manage materials at the end of their useful lives. If we don’t consider the complete lifecycle, we face the risk of repeating the pre-1980 era, a time of increasing landfill waste with little thought to the impact of this waste on the planet.

Wearable technology recycling is just one aspect of a broader challenge we face to understand the impact of any technology on the environment, from the design stage through manufacturing, distribution, use and, ultimately, disposal.