Old electronics clutter our landfills and junk drawers, but it doesn't have to be that way
Admit it: You have a stash of old electronic devices.
You'll probably never use them again, yet you keep them.
The reluctance to part with mobile phones, laptops and other gizmos - sometimes called "gadget hoarding" - is part of a larger and more troubling issue: managing electronic waste, or 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.
Behdad and industry partner PC Rebuilders and Recyclers received a $280,000 National Science Foundation grant to examine issues, including gadget hoarding, which contribute to e-waste. Ultimately, the goal is to use industrial engineering concepts, such as the optimization of complex systems and processes, to reduce what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said is the nation's fastest-growing domestic waste stream.
Americans discarded roughly 384 million consumer electronics in 2010, according to the EPA. That includes mobile phones, televisions, computers and other devices, some of which contain hazardous materials such as cadmium, lead and mercury. This is problematic, because these toxins can leak from the devices into drinking water supplies.
Electronics manufacturers, retail stores, recycling companies, government agencies and other organizations have made strides to reduce e-waste. But their efforts are hampered by several factors, including the lack of information on the quality, quantity and timing of when consumers will return used electronics.
"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 of the grant.
Another factor that hampers the reuse of electronics is how products are designed. The mantra "thinner is better" helps sell countless smartphones, tablets and other devices. But unlike desktop computers, mobile gadgets can be difficult to reuse or recycle due to their svelte design.
The research team is addressing these problems in two ways.
First, members are developing mathematical models that simulate consumer behavior and how design decisions contribute to e-waste. The models will consider issues such as consumer concern over data security, lack of awareness of recycling programs and sentimental attachment to certain products.
Data from these experiments will improve estimates of how much, what types and when consumers will generate e-waste. In turn, this will enable recycling and refurbishing companies to improve the collection of e-waste and recovery of raw materials.
Secondly, the researchers will create an evaluation system to be used in the design process. For example, designers will be able to assess how using a certain type of metal or glue will affect how easily the product can be refurbished or recycled.
"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," Behdad said. "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."