Why younger minds will solve the e-waste crisis

P2 Impact

Why younger minds will solve the e-waste crisis

E-waste image by tonympix via Shutterstock.

Electronics and related waste are ubiquitous in our culture, particularly with younger generations.

Current college students, for example, grew up with a cell phone in one hand, with the other hand on a computer. It seems like a natural fit to engage them in developing sustainable solutions for the mountains of electronic wastes to which they contribute.

Doing so makes it more concrete, relatable and relevant. It also inspires them to incorporate sustainability into their worldviews and actions as future professionals. This is why universities around the country are beginning to offer coursework aimed at tackling the e-waste problem.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will offer a new course in spring 2014 to introduce the environmental and social impacts associated with technology at each stage of the product life cycle, including design, manufacture, consumption and disposal and recovery. The course is a collaborative effort of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center's Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI), the College of Engineering and the Technology Entrepreneur Center.

Electronic products will be used as a case study and provide the framework for discussion of complex legal, economic, social and environmental considerations. Guest lecturers will include industry and organizations dedicated to sustainable electronics design, use and management. Class projects will challenge students to develop a concept that might be entered in SEI's International Sustainable Electronics Competition or create a repair guide for iFixit’s Technical Writing Project. iFixit works with more than a dozen universities throughout the U.S., giving students hands-on experience investigating repairability of devices and writing manuals that empower consumers to extend the useful life of the products they own.

A similar effort, focused on graduate student training, has been underway as a collaboration of Purdue and Tuskegee universities since 2012. Part of the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, the Global Traineeship in Sustainable Electronics is a series of courses that provide an in-depth, multi-disciplinary experience in which students learn from a team of industry and academic experts in sustainable electronics issues, while addressing real world problems. Students who complete the series receive a certificate in sustainable electronics.

In a related effort, Purdue's Fu Zhao and Carol Handwerker recently led a team of students in U.S. EPA’s P3 Competition. The students developed a way to more efficiently disassemble LCD monitors for recycling. Although the team did not progress to Phase II of the competition, they received honorable mention and hopefully will serve as inspiration for future P3 teams to tackle other electronics-related issues.

A growing problem

The environmental and social impacts associated with electronic devices throughout their product life cycles are many and complex. Fostering a more sustainable system for the design, manufacture, use and end-of-life management of electronics is neither simple nor straightforward.

In 2009, 2.37 million tons of electronics were ready for end-of-life management, according to EPA estimates [PDF], but only 25 percent was collected for recycling. Clearly, there’s room for improvement, in terms of recovering the resources, both precious and potentially hazardous, that are invested in these devices.

Even when electronics are collected for recycling and handled responsibly by certified recyclers, the story remains complicated. Consider leaded glass from old Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors. That material used to be recycled for use in new monitors, but now that flat panel monitors have replaced CRTs, finding a new use for this material, which continues to be gathered as old TVs and monitors trickle into recycling programs, has created a challenge.

Recycling certification programs themselves exist because of the informal recycling operations that use crude and dangerous methods to collect the valuable commodities from electronics as quickly and cheaply as possible, such as burning, acid baths and breaking electronics with hammers or rocks. The problem is further complicated by many issues, including the environmental and social implications of obtaining materials for device manufacture, such as conflict minerals, and consumer attitudes and social pressures that encourage quick turnover of devices.

Electronics clearly benefit our lives, especially in areas such as education, medicine and science. Minimizing the negative impacts must include research and education in a wide variety of disciplines, including obvious areas such as computer science, mechanical engineering, materials science, environmental engineering and industrial design.

Other less obvious disciplines that also should be included in the conversation include marketing, social sciences, environmental law and policy, economics and public health. These and humanities disciplines, including art, philosophy and ethics, also provide insight into the human factors at the root cause of many problems related to electronics. They can also help to identify ways of encouraging people to think with the environment in mind when it comes to their beloved gadgets.

A path toward more sustainable electronics

Similarly, a wide range of industrial sectors are stakeholders in creating a more sustainable system for electronics. These include manufacturers of a wide variety of devices, chemical suppliers, mining companies, parts suppliers, retailers, recyclers and others. There are probably as many stakeholders involved in these issues as there are ways in which electronics pervade our lives and culture. This complexity presents tremendous opportunities for interdisciplinary cooperation.

Bringing industry stakeholders and pollution prevention professionals together with academics in such efforts can yield many benefits. As with P2 internships, students receive experience with systems thinking that will be of use in future careers. Industry and society benefit from having young people consider real problems. Industry further benefits because they get a future pool of applicants with the training to support corporate social responsibility and green initiatives.

Finally, the integration of sustainable electronics issues into multidisciplinary university and college curricula helps to create a culture of education for sustainable development that focuses on solving real world challenges.

E-waste image by tonympix via Shutterstock.