I admit it. I’m guilty! For some reason I find it completely natural to toss outdated phones into random drawers throughout the house. I never really much though of it, but now I realize that that was not the right thing to do. Which is weird, because normally I do tend to think about these types of issues. Each year I take my broken and unwanted electronic components to designated collection areas, where they can be disassembled and discarded efficiently and safely, but for some reason that never applied to much smaller gadgets.
Now that I think of it, my household even has a couple of outdated laptops sitting around that were either acting up or couldn’t keep up with times. According to Sara Behdad, assistant professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University at Buffalo, this systematic filing of unwanted and unused electronic devices is sometimes called “gadget hoarding”, which is another form of e-waste.
“We need to create systems that encourage people to sell or trade-in these products in a timely manner so they can be refurbished and have two, three or even four life cycles before they are transformed into raw materials,” said Sara Behdad, assistant professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University at Buffalo.
According to the EPA, Americans discarded 384 million consumer electronics in 2010. Yikes! Thankfully, each year more and more people deliver their unwanted electronics to collection sites for recycling and proper disposal. Did you know that it is now illegal to dump your old TVs and computers in the trash, or leave them curbside? You will get fined for doing so.
Now Behdad is embarking upon another kind of mission that will help to figure out better solutions for people who tend to gadget hoard. She has teamed up with PC Rebuilders and Recyclers to come up with possible solutions for the ever-mounting environmental issue. One thing to remember is that time is of the essence. When a person upgrades an electronic device, chances are if the unwanted item is traded in immediately, it can either be refurbished or the components can be harvested easier. The sooner the transaction takes place, the better.
“Most people replace their still functional products with new products. But they hold onto those old devices, which is problematic because, in general, the sooner a product is returned, the more valuable it is for the first owner, refurbishing companies and recyclers,” said Willie Cade, CEO and founder of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, and a co-principal investigator. The team is using a $280,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the issue.
As computers and phones get thinner and thinner, their reuse becomes more difficult. At the same time, many consumer electronics businesses that do accept discarded items aren’t exactly sure what to do with the amassed collections. Often times, there is no telling what sort of condition the equipment is in, which presents a problem when it comes to spending time analyzing each component for potential reuse, or on the other hand, disassembly.
What is most important is that these electronics be given a shot at a second or third life, and not simply discarded into the environment, where harmful chemicals (cadmium, lead and mercury) can leach into our drinking waters.
The studies at hand will concentrate on the reasons that consumers tend to hold onto products, ranging from “data security, lack of awareness of recycling programs and sentimental attachment to certain products.”
Ultimately these studies will help recycling and refurbishing companies to improve their collection abilities and their recovery processes. Further studies will examine the materials that are used when assembling the components, to see if there are ways to ensure that when a device has reached the end of the road, it can be more sustainably broken down or refurbished.
“In many cases, it’s simply not economically feasible for a recycling company to try to recover copper, aluminum and other valuable materials from electronic devices,” said Behdad. “We can change that by considering the materials recovery process when these products are designed. As such, this will provide a responsible way for businesses and other entities to dispose of their unwanted equipment and give these devices additional lives.”
From the way the devices are made, to how they are eventually retired, these studies are instrumental in ensuring that the planet doesn’t suffer any more than it has to. Obviously no one is going to go out of their way to do the right thing if the process is made too difficult. On the flip side, there are inherent broad stroke changes that can be made that will make it easier to handle this mess in the long run.