As electronics have become increasingly ubiquitous, the never-ending upgrade churn fills an ever-larger e-graveyard. If that’s where the story ends, we’re in real trouble. The several years of use a typical device sees effectively become a short conveyor belt between mines around the world and the local landfill. The only sensible and sustainable thing to do is to recycle the materials in our devices—ideally right into the next generation of tech.
Responsible recycling operations (that don’t simply dump e-waste in developing countries) have an interesting set of challenges to work on. Recycling is always trying to catch up to—and is limited by—what manufacturers are doing. But opportunities are there for those willing to make it a priority.
To learn a little about the kinds of things that can be done now and what stands in the way of doing more, Ars talked to Dell about its recycling efforts. Dell runs a take-back program for old devices in partnership with Goodwill, which sells anything worth selling and sends the rest on.
Closing the loop
In the last few years, Dell has started to move beyond just collecting e-waste for recyclers and is trying to “close the loop” by using some of the recycled material in its products—namely the plastic. Because a limited number of types of plastic get used for electronics, e-waste is a better resource to work with than your household recycling bin would be. Most of the plastic that comes in is suitable to be used in new products. But it’s not quite that simple—paints, labels, “soft-touch” coatings, and additives like flame retardants can render plastic difficult or even impossible to work with.
“The base material is a good place to start, but there’s still a good bit of engineering work to actually get the product to the point where the recycled plastics have the equivalent or better properties of virgin plastics, which is what we have to do to meet our specification needs,” Dell Director of Environmental Affairs and Global Responsibility Scott O’Connell told Ars.
All that plastic gets processed at a recycling plant in Texas run by Wistron, a manufacturer that was already handling refurbishing before it got into the e-waste business. One approach is to just shred the whole mess and sort the pieces, but workers at this plant dismantle devices by hand to separate materials more cleanly. Plastics with disqualifying characteristics head off in other directions; the rest is sorted by chemistry and color.
That plastic is shipped to Wistron’s operations in Kunshan, China, where a number of plastics manufacturers are located. (Unfortunately, e-waste collection efforts and manufacturing are on opposite sides of the planet.) Wistron’s plant, Senior Manager of Business Development Eric Huang explained, takes in dismantled plastic and spits out resin ready to be molded into something else.
That “something else” has so far been back panels for Dell’s monitors and all-in-ones. “We do encounter some potential for cosmetic issues and for performance issues [with pure recycled plastic],” O’Connell said. “Before we rolled this out in 2014, we had about a nine-month trial process where we actually had to do a lot of engineering work. What we found is, to get the properties right you do have to have a blend of recycled content along with virgin plastics.”
There’s more to this recycling thing than “melt and pour,” unfortunately. Part of the recycling process involves grinding up the plastic—sometimes more than once—and this changes its properties. At every step in the processing, and even in the design of the product, there are variables that could potentially be tweaked to increase the share of recycled plastic in the blend.
What about the guts?
The rest of the e-waste entering Wistron’s recycling plant has a different fate. Cables go one way to have their copper recovered. Steel frames go another. Lithium-ion batteries go to dedicated lithium operations. Case fans might even be saved and reused. Any components that can be yanked off circuit boards are, and then it’s on to precious metals.
Smelting operations in Europe and Japan have traditionally just burned off the fiberglass and melted the metals, but Wistron’s Texas plant relies on water rather than fire. Chemicals (which can be recycled for the next batch) leach gold-plating and solder until everything just falls off the fiberglass board. Grinding and more chemistry can separate the various metals that remain.
None of these materials is plugged directly back into electronics made by Dell or anyone else. They just hit the commodity market as another source of copper, or lithium, or gold. “I thought metals would be easy when we started working on this several years ago, but they have actually turned out to be a little more complicated than plastics,” O’Connell said.
For many metals, the electronics industry does not dominate demand, so it makes sense for recycled metal to simply hit the open market. There are clearly opportunities for electronics companies to use those recycled metals directly, but O’Connell thinks the open market will probably always be part of the story. There may someday be good enough tracking in the industry that you at least know how much of the metal you’re buying is recycled, but for now recycled material just slips invisibly into the stream.
But for all the ways recycling could be improved, the real obstacles still come from the way products are designed. There are simple things manufacturers can do to make products more easily recyclable, like skipping adhesives, minimizing the number of screws used, and maximizing the ease with which a product can be taken apart. (Apple, for example, recently highlighted a robotic disassembly process for end-of-life iPhones it is working on.) “We routinely take product designers into the recyclers themselves so they can see good design versus bad design,” O’Connell said.
Obviously, the choice of materials is the other big variable, but it’s even more complicated than just using easily recyclable materials. Minimizing the use of expensive materials can bring the cost (and environmental footprint) of a product down but can also have unintended consequences on the economics of recycling. The precious metal content of integrated circuit chips has declined over time, for example. “Because our manufacturing techniques are so air-tight and so much more clean, there’s not as much need for precious metals in those types of materials because their innards never get exposed to oxygen,” Huang said.
That’s good, but it also means it’s tougher for recyclers to turn a profit.
Huang describes the situation as a sort of race between manufacturers and recyclers, with recyclers forever catching up to all the new things manufacturers throw at them. The growing “Internet of things” is also an “Internet of e-waste”—even light bulbs can contain circuit boards that need to be recycled. Recyclers have to figure out how to work with each of those things as they start showing up alongside the usual computers, printers, and phones.
“In some ways, it’s gotta start on the front end, in terms of consumers wanting products that are more recyclable,” Huang said.
That’s a particularly tough sell since consumers get almost no information about how recyclable any given product is. A company may improve its image by advertising “green” programs, but there is little financial incentive beyond that to put the work into solving these problems and designing for recyclability. It’s hard enough to match competitors’ progress on all the characteristics consumers know they do want.
The closest thing to an Energy Star label for recyclability is the EPEAT registry, where companies can verify that their products meet an IEEE standard. (The interpretation of that standard has not always impressed, however.) This has helped large entities like the federal government follow their purchasing rules but isn’t necessarily the most useful thing for the average consumer.
Consumers do, at least, control what they do with a device at the end of its useful life. You can make sure they end up in recycling programs—and hope those programs continue to improve.