How large is the cache of discarded electronics in your home? They were once expensive and cherished items, but now they’re a question-mark for responsible disposal. I’m going to dig into this problem — which goes far beyond your collection of dead smartphones — as well as the issues of where this stuff ends up versus where it should end up. I’m even going to demystify the WEEE mark (that crossed out trashcan icon you’ve been noticing on your gadgets), talk about how much jumbo jets weigh, and touch on circular economies, in the pursuit of better understanding of the waste streams modern gadgets generate.
Our lives are encountering an increasing number of “how do I dispose of this [X]” moments, where X is piles of old batteries, LCDs, desktop towers, etc. This leads to relationship-testing piles of
garbage potential in a garage or the bottom of a closet. Sometimes that old gear gets sold or donated. Sometimes there’s a handy e-waste campaign that swings through the neighborhood to scoop that pile up, and sometimes it eventually ends up in the trash wrapped in that dirty feeling that we did something wrong. We’ve all been there; it’s easy to discover that responsible disposal of our old electronics can be hard.
Fun fact: the average person who lives in the US generates 20 kg of e-waste annually (or about 44 freedom pounds). That’s not unique, in the UK it’s about 23 kg (that’s 23 in common kilograms), 24 kg for Denmark, and on and on. That’s quite a lot for an individual human, right? What makes up that much waste for one person? For that matter, what sorts of waste is tracked in the bogus sounding e-waste statistics you see bleated out in pleading Facebook posts? Unsurprisingly there are some common definitions. And the Very Serious People people at the World Economic Forum who bring you the definitions have some solutions to consider too.
We spend a lot of time figuring out how to build this stuff. Are we spending enough time planning for what to do with the gear once it falls out of favor? Let’s get to the bottom of this rubbish.
Putting the “E” in Waste
Let’s start at the top. What actually constitutes e-waste, and does it hyphenate? The World Economic Forum defines e-waste (yes, hyphenated) as “anything with a plug, electric cord or battery…that has reached the end of its life, as well as the components that make up these end-of-life products.” That’s pretty easy to apply, right? Did it have electrons traveling through it? Great! Then it will become e-waste at its point of death.
Before we go to far there is an interesting aside. The WEF clarifies that “E-waste is also called waste electrical or electronic equipment, or WEEE for short”. Ever noticed those funny crossed out trash cans on the bottom of your electronics, near the CE, FCC ID, and all that? That’s called a WEEE Mark and it’s there to remind you that the object is e-waste and shouldn’t be thrown away normally. If you’re building electronics one may need to be included. Incidentally writing this post was when I discovered my soldering iron doesn’t have one!
Why am I bothering you with this topic now? E-waste is hardly a new problem. Well the WEF put out a few (surprisingly readable for something billed as an “economic forum”) white papers about e-waste at the end of January and they have some pretty terrifying statistics. Like that one about every person in the US generating about 20 kg of e-waste annually.
Note that the distribution of waste/person is highly uneven, and while 20 kg is near the top the low end is very nearly 0kg/person/year. If we ask Wolfram Alpha to humanize that 20kg number for us we get a not-useful comparison to the weight of a gold bar (come on Wolfram, we’re Hackaday writers not bankers). Not useful. But the white paper has some totally bonkers comparisons that help.
E-Waste Volume in Terms of Airplanes
Based on 2016 figures, humanity generates about 44.7 millions tonnes of e-waste worldwide each year. It’s a little dated, but we can put it in terms of big airplanes. A 747-100 has a maximum takeoff weight of about 333,000kg. An A380’s zero fuel weight is about 361,000 kgs (ironically that comparison is a little dated too). Divide that out and we generate about 125,000 jumbo jets of e-waste. Per year.
I’d ask if you’ve ever seen an airport that crowded except one can’t possibly exist anywhere on the planet because it would literally cover Manhattan. If jets magically materialized at the end of a Heathrow runway and the airport operated continuously at full capacity (drone free), it would take 6 months of 24 hour service for them to take off. Now are you getting it? Does it seem big? I’d compare it to Eiffel towers but it’s frankly a less impressive metric.
Where is Stuff Going?
Time for another exciting statistic! E-waste is only 2% of solid waste streams (trash, basically) but represents 70% of the total hazardous waste that makes it to a landfill. Of course not all, but some electronics are a bonanza of heavy metals and other things you don’t want leaching into your water table. But no one is going to find janitorial rolling dusty racks out of a data center and into a dumpster (I hope. You’re not doing that right?). There are recycling programs and private businesses established worldwide to consume this waste stream for either ecological reasons or financial ones.
It turns out that recycling rates are low, with only 20% of e-waste making it to appropriately controlled and tracked collection points. But that other 80% goes elsewhere. 4% is literally thrown in household trash, but 76% enters a gray area. The white paper literally says “fate unknown” which is fun but slightly deceptive. There is no official documentation of its demise but we know a lot of it ends up being recycled in what what the WEF calls “inferior conditions,” which is a euphemism for those smoking piles you see pictures of in Ghana. Conditions which lead to widespread birth defects and lasting environmental damage.
The World Economic Forum; being as named an economic body, has some analysis about why this is happening. There is value in the goods being destroyed, so why isn’t more being recaptured in a rigorous manner? Why do things end up in burning piles of garbage in the first place. Arguably burning it in a pile actually is an ingenious, entrepreneurial way of separating valuable material from non (in the photo above they are removing insulation from wire). But I think what the WEF means here is “why don’t people set up fancy, regulated factories and business to do it.”
The WEF would say that in this regard we have a linear economy. A linear economy is the simple kind, the classic waterfall that you think of when considering how anything is made. Necessary resources are mined, the product is manufactured, sold, and used until it’s end of life, then it’s disposed of. The process of recycling is like grabbing that linear flow and muscling it around until “disposed of” is coincident with “mine resources.” The output stream becomes the input stream. Obvious, but hard.
A Circular Value Chain
So is a circular economy possible? At this point it seems easy in description and hard in execution. The fact that we do recycle now means that we are actually fractionally there but in a true circle there are neither substantial “mine resources” inputs nor “then it turns to waste” outputs. Of course no system is perfect, so it betrays a lack of understanding to expect zero waste, but the the entire life cycle is designed for and resources are largely reused.
How? There are a variety of technological and process ways to move in this direction. We can extract and separate all the resources consumed in a product during recycling and reintroduce them into the value chain at the top. Products can be made modular so they can be upgraded and replaced. We can stop all technological development so that nothing is ever out of date again, etc, etc. “Circular economy” doesn’t mean perfect recycling and it doesn’t mean never upgrade. It can be constructed from any combination of means that ultimately reduce waste.
An Aside on Practical Repairability
I think it’s worth pulling back from the white paper here and using our critical thinking as Hackaday readers. The WEF’s breakdown of contributors to the e-waste tide is a reminder that the definition of e-waste is “things with plugs.” Obviously a phone is e-waste, but so is the electric kettle in the kitchen. Or the washer and dryer. These are substantially different types of devices with substantially different constituent parts. The phone will have more of those exotic rare earth metals in it’s semiconductors. There will be plastics in the body and midframe, maybe steel or magnesium too. And some gold and copper blended in for good measure. What about an electric kettle? It will have hard plastics too, and maybe some metals. But the electronics will be much, much more simple. Maybe there’s a control system that can drive the heating element to a temperature set point. But maybe it could just as easily be a wire to the wall, a switch, and a big slug of metal as a heating coil.
Turning back to ways to bring us closer to a circle it’s clear that some solutions are vastly better suited to these waste categories than others. Different forms of modular or serviceable phones have been tried again and again to middling results. Why? User serviceability usually implies modularity. If a normal user is going to conduct upgrades then the modules need to be easy to connect and large enough to handle without specialized tools. And once you get away from shooting your phones full of adhesives there are other trade offs. Glue is effectively infinitesimal and can be applied to any mating surface. Screws and snaps have volume and the material they pass through needs to have features designed into it to support them, both of which take space. And once you start taking space for fasteners, designers need to trade battery life or size or weight for those fasteners. Modules need to be connectorized, which also take size, especially because connectors that humans can easily use without damage are significantly larger than the board to board style mezzanine connectors and tiny U.FL jacks a manufacturer would typically use. And more connectorization impacts the routing of electrical lines, especially high speed, RF, etc connections between the different components of the device.
Ultimately you weigh serviceability against design as another feature in the product requirements doc. Some would say this is worth it, and that real practitioners of Cradle to Cradle design would stridently make that argument to management and that consumers would respond to it. That might be true! I personally think it’s absolutely worth a try. But so far no one has proven any measurable amount of consumers are ready to put their money where their mouths are and buy those products. Very few have figured out how to make a business out of selling those devices.
Breaking Down the Big Stuff
But there are other paths here. Remember those kettles and washing machines? You don’t need to throw them in a burn pit to extract the resources. Someone can break them apart by hand and pull out the electronics. Better yet, unlike modern consumer electronics they are easy to repair! Why trash the entire kettle when you can turn a few screws and replace the electronics. Better than that, why throw it away and wait for someone farther down the value chain to replace components when it can be repaired in-situ? It never needs to be thrown away in the first place if the user or a repair person can come and fix it! Larger devices are (or were) naturally designed to be easy to service, and while the market may have moved towards adhesives and complex PCBAs with tiny parts I think there’s a huge opportunity here to be a beacon of modern ecologically friendly design. Certainly no one will care if their washer is 3 mm thicker to accommodate a sheet metal screw and boss.
One more point in support of prioritizing the lifecycle of big devices over little. What fraction of the e-waste stream do they represent? The WEF suggests that “small equipment” (kettles, irons, vacuums, etc), “large equipment” (refrigerators, washers and dryers, etc) and “temperature exchange equipment” (air conditioners, heaters, etc) make up a total of 75% of e-waste! I’m sure the proportions of heavy metals and more exotic resources isn’t evenly distributed among those categories, but repairing and reusing these categories would go a huge distance towards reducing those 125,000-jumbo-jets and improving the status quo.
Again the WEF, as an economic organization, has one more reason why a circular economy is worth pursuing; lower costs. Surprising right? In a shocking turn of events for some resources it’s already less energy intensive to extract resources from the waste stream than from the ground. Literally, there is 100 times as much gold per ton of smartphones than in the same weight of gold ore; it’s just differently contained. The Surprising Statistics from the WEF white paper indicates there are about $62.5 billion of value locked up in e-waste annually, which compares favorably to most national GDPs.
In it’s entirely the circular economy includes more design concerns than this, plus clever business models that can make a difference. I may have personal qualms, but the WEF thinks tricks like “electronics as a service” might be a great way to go. The world of the circular economy is wide and deserves more coverage than the endmatter on a too-long article, so expect to see more here on Hackaday in the future. If you want more detail than you got here (or want to see sources) dig into the WEF report.
What about you? Have you considered reuse or reclamation in your designs? Let us know in the comments! We’d love to see that state of the hardware lifecycle in our community.