The Woeful World of Worldwide E-Waste

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.
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The Metabolizer Turns Trash into Treasure

The amount of stuff we humans throw away is too damn high, and a bunch of it harms the ecosystem. But what are you gonna do? [Sam Smith] thinks we can do better than shoving most of it in a landfill and waiting for it to break down. That’s why he’s building The Metabolizer. It’s a series of systems designed to turn household trash (including plastic!) into useful things like fuel, building materials, and 3D prints.

The idea is to mimic the metabolism of a living organism and design something that can break down garbage into both useful stuff and fuel for itself. [Sam] is confident that since humans figured out how to make plastic, we can figure out a system to metabolize it. His proof-of-concept plan is to break down waste into combustible, gaseous fuel and use that fuel to power a small engine. The engine will power an open-source plastic shredder and turn a generator that powers an open-source plastic pellet printer like the SeeMeCNC Part Daddy.

Shredding plastic for use as a biomass requires condensing out the tar and hydrocarbons. This process leaves carbon monoxide and hydrogen syngas, which is perfect for running a Briggs & Stratton from Craigslist that’s been modified to run on gaseous fuel. Condensation is a nasty process that we don’t advise trying unless you know what you’re doing. Be careful, [Sam], because we’re excited to watch this one progress. You can watch it chew up some plastic after the break.

If [Sam] ever runs out of garbage to feed The Metabolizer, maybe he could build a fleet of trash-collecting robots.

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Waste Shark Aims To Clean Our Harbours And Oceans

Drones are adding functionality to our everyday lives, and automation is here to help humanity whether we’re ready for it or not. In a clever combination of the two, [Richard Hardiman] of RanMarine has developed small drone-boats that scoop up garbage from the ocean — he calls them ‘Waste Sharks.’

The two models — slim and fatboy — aim to collect up to 1,100 pounds of garbage apiece in the ‘mouths’ just below the water’s surface. The Waste Sharks are still restricted to remote control and are only autonomous when traveling between waypoints, but one can see how this technology could evolve into the “Wall-E of water.”

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Lessons in Small Scale Manufacturing From The Othermill Shop Floor

Othermachine Co. is not a big company. Their flagship product, the Othermill, is made in small, careful batches. As we’ve seen with other small hardware companies, the manufacturing process can make or break the company. While we toured their factory in Berkeley California, a few interesting things stood out to us about their process which showed their manufacturing competence.

It’s not often that small companies share the secrets of their shop floor. Many of us have dreams of selling kits, so any lessons that can be learned from those who have come before is valuable. The goal of any manufacturing process optimization is to reduce cost while simultaneously maintaining or increasing quality. Despite what cynics would like to believe, this is often entirely possible and often embarrassingly easy to accomplish.

Lean manufacturing defines seven wastes that can be optimized out of a process.

  1. Overproduction: Simply, making more than you currently have demand for. This is a really common mistake for first time producers.
  2. Inventory: Storing more than you need to meet production or demand. Nearly every company I’ve worked for has this problem. There is an art to having just enough. Don’t buy one bulk order of 3,000 screws for six months, order 500 screws every month as needed.
  3. Waiting: Having significant delays between processes. These are things ranging from running out of USB cables to simply having to wait too long for something to arrive on a conveyor belt. Do everything you can to make sure the process is always flowing from one step to another.
  4. Motion: If you have a person walking back and forth between the ends of the factory to complete one step of the manufacturing process, this is wasted motion.
  5. Transport: Different from motion, this is waste in moving the products of each individual process between sections of the assembly.
  6. Rework: Get it right the first time. If your process can’t produce a product that meets specifications, fix the process.
  7. Over-processing: Don’t do more work than is necessary. If your part specifies 1000 hours of runtime don’t buy a million dollar machine to get 2000 hours out of it. If you can find a way to do it with one step, don’t do it with three.


The first thing that stuck out to me upon entering Othermachine Co’s shop floor is their meticulous system for getting small batches through the factory in a timely manner. This allows them to scale their production as their demand fluctuates. CNCs and 3D printers are definitely seasonal purchases; with sales often increasing in the winter months when hackers are no longer lured away from their workstations by nice weather.

As the seven sins proclaim. It would be a bad move for Othermachine Co. to make too many mills. Let’s say they had made an extra 100 mills while demand was at a seasonal low. If they found a design or quality problem from customer feedback they’d have to commit to rework, potentially throwing away piles of defective parts. If they want to push a change to the machine or release a new model they’d either have to rework the machines, trash them, or wait till they all sold before improving their product. Even worse, they may find themselves twiddling their thumbs waiting for their supply to decrease enough to start manufacturing again. This deprives them of opportunities to improve their process and leads to a lax work environment.

One way to ensure that parts are properly handled and inventory is kept to a minimum is with proper visual controls. To this end, Othermachine Co has custom cardboard bins made that perfectly cradle all the precision parts for each process in their own color coded container. Since the shop floor is quite small, it lets them focus on making spindle assemblies one day and motion assemblies another without having to waste time between each step. Also, someone can rekit the parts for a recently completed step easily without interrupting work on the current process going on.


It’s hard to define what’s over processing and what isn’t. My favorite example of what isnt, and something I’ve fought for on nearly every factory floor I’ve worked on is proper torque limiting screwdrivers. They’re a little expensive, but they are a wonderful tool that helps to avoid costly rework and over processing. For example, let’s say you didn’t have a torque limiting screwdriver. Maybe your customers would complain that occasionally a screw came loose. Now, one way to solve this would be the liberal application of Loctite. Another way would be an additional inspection step. Both of these are additional and completely uneccessary steps as most screws will hold as long as they are torqued properly.

In one factory I worked in, it was often a problem that a recently hired worker would overtorque a screw, either stripping it or damaging the parts it was mating together. A torque limiting screwdriver takes the worker’s physical strength out of the equation, while reducing their fatigue throughout the day. It’s a win/win. Any time a crucial step can go from unknown to trusted with the application of a proper tool or test step it is worth it.

Another section where Othermachine Co. applied this principle is with the final machining step for the CNC bed. The step produces a large amount of waste chips. Rather than having an employee waste time vacuuming out every Othermill after it has gone through this process, they spent some time designing a custom vacuum attachment. This essentially removed an entire production step. Not bad!

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With the proper management of waste it is entirely possible to save money and improve a process at the same time. It takes a bit of training to learn how to see it. It helps to have an experienced person around in order to learn how to properly respond to them, but with a bit of practice it becomes a skill that spreads to all areas of life. Have any of you had experience with this kind of problem solving? I’ve really enjoyed learning from the work stories posted in the comments.

Waste Not, No Lights

Alchemists tried in vain to transmute lead into gold. What if you could turn waste products into energy? That’s what [chemicum] did in a recent video–he and some friends built microbial fuel cells that convert excrement into electricity (you can see the video, below).

The video doesn’t give you all the details of the build, but it seems easy enough. You need some stainless steel mesh, some activated charcoal, some epoxy, plastic containers, and some assorted metal plates and hardware. Of course, you also need excrement and–if the video is any indication–some clothespins to clamp your nose shut as you work.

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Hacking for Good: Watly

Here at Hackaday, we often encourage people to hack for the greater good through contests. Sure, it is fun to create a wireless barbeque thermometer or an electronic giant foam finger. At the end of the day, though, those projects didn’t really change the world, or maybe they just change a little corner of the world.

I recently saw a commercial device that made me think about how more hacker-types (including myself) ought to be working more on big problems. The device was Watly. The Italian and Spanish start up company claims the car-sized device is a “solar-powered computer.” No offense to them, but that’s the worst description for Watly that you could pick and still be accurate.

So what is Watly? It looks like some sort of temporary shelter or futuristic campsite equipment. However, it contains an array of solar cells and a very large battery. I know you are thinking, “Great. A big solar charger. Big deal.” But there’s more to Watly then just that.

The first Watly rolled out in Ghana, in Sub-Saharan Africa. About 67% of the population there–over 600 million people–do not have electricity. Nearly 40% do not have safe water. Watly uses a graphene-based filter and then uses its electricity to distill safe drinking water by boiling it. The company claims the device can deliver about 5,000 liters of safe drinking water per day.

If you read Hackaday, it is a good bet you have easy access to safe drinking water, electricity, and Internet. Think for a minute what it would be like if you didn’t. Here on the Gulf Coast of the United States, we sometimes have hurricanes or other storms that show us what this is like for a week or two. But even then, people come with water in trucks or cans. Generators show up to let you run your fridge for a few hours. Even more important: you know the situation is only temporary. What if you really thought those services would never be restored?

The portable device can provide power, water, and wireless Internet service and can last for 15 years. Watly intends to create a larger version with even more capacity.  The project received funding from the EU Horizon 2020 program that we’ve mentioned before. Creating clean water is something that can help lots of people. So is using less water. If you want some more inspiration for tackling water problems, we’ve got some links for you.

Projects For Solving Big Water Problems

We’re looking for solutions to problems that matter and water waste is high on that list. This week we challenged you to think about Big Water; ideas that could help conserve the water used in agricultural and industrial applications. Take a look at some of the entries, get excited, and start working on your own idea for the 2015 Hackaday Prize.


smart-dewpoint-harvesterThat’s right, windtraps. Like the Fremen of Arrakis there were a few hackers who propose systems to pull moisture from the air.

The RainMaker is targeted for urban farming and explores the possibility of passive systems that water themselves automatically. [Hickss] admits that there are some limitations to the concept. Small systems would have limited ability to collect moisture and a need for direct sunlight in order to be solar powered. However, if you’re growing food we figure direct sunlight was a pre-requisite anyway.

On a bit grander scale is the Smart Dew-Point Water Harvester which is shown off in this diagram. The proof of concept at this point is a desktop system that collects moisture on a small heat-sync. Scroll down to that project’s comments and read about the possibility of building the system underground to take advantage of the naturally colder area.

For us the interesting question is can this be done in conjunction with traditional irrigation? Is a lot of irrigation water lost to evaporation and could reclamation through these means make an impact?

Moisture Sensing

water-sensing-orb-thumbSimple but powerful: only water when the plants need it! Here are several entries focused on sensors that make sure fields are being watered more efficiently.

The Adaptive Watering System focuses on this, seeking to retrofit current setups with sensor pods that make up a mesh network. We found the conjecture about distributing and retrieving these pods using a combine harvester quite interesting.

Going along with the networked concept there is a Moisture Monitoring Mesh Network which proposes individual solar-powered spikes. Much of the info for that project is embodied in the diagram, including a mock-up of how the data could be visualized. One thing we hadn’t spent much time thinking about is that fields may be watered unevenly and a sensor network would be a powerful tool in balancing these systems.

Wrapping up this concept is the Soil Moisture Sensor for Agriculture. [JamesW_001] rendered the image seen above as his concept for the sensor. Toss the orbs throughout the fields and the rings of contacts on the outside make up the sensor while the brains held safely inside report back wirelessly.


solar-water-pumpTwo projects tackled plumbing. The first is the Solar Water Pump seen here. Focused on the developing world, this array provides water for multiple applications, including agricultural irrigation, and can be used for wells or surface water sources.

Once that pump gets the water moving it will be taking a trip through some pipes which are another potential source of waste. When buried pipes leak, how will you know about it? That’s the issue tackled by the Water Pipeline Leak Detection and Location project. When the water pipe is buried, two sets of twisted-pair conductors in permeable sheathing are also buried along with it. These redundant sensors would use Time-Domain Reflectometry (TDR) to detect the location of a short between conductors. We’re a bit fuzzy on how this would detect leaks and not rain or irrigation water but perhaps the pipe/wire pairs would be in their own water-shedding sleeve?

This Week’s Winners


First place this week goes to the Smart Garden and will receive a DSLogic 16-channel Logic Analyzer.

Second place this week goes to Soil Moisture Sensor for Agriculture and will receive an Adafruit Bluefruit Bluetooth Low Energy sniffer.

Third place this week goes to Solar Water Pump and will receive a Hackaday robot head tee.

Next Week’s Theme

We’ll announce next week’s theme a bit later today. Don’t let that stop you from entering any ideas this collection of entries may have inspired. Start your project on and add the tag 2015HackadayPrize.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by: