Archive for the 'Consumer Electronics' Category

Burning Need: The Search for Less-toxic Flame Retardants

Thursday, September 18th, 2014 by

DfE labelFlame retardants have been in the news again recently, as four health systems announced they would follow Kaiser Permanante’s lead by halting future purchases of furniture treated with flame retardants. As participants in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI), these health systems will specify with suppliers that upholstered furniture should not contain flame retardants where code permits. Commonly used flame retardants, particularly halogenated ones, have been found to be persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment, and have been linked to a variety of health problems, including endocrine disruption, cancer, neurotoxicity, and adverse developmental issues among others. These compounds serve as great illustration of the need for source reduction and safer alternatives considerations during P2 Week.

One such class of compounds, polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, were commonly used in electronics, among other things. Back in 2004, a study conducted by the Electronics Take Back Coalition (then called the Computer Take-Back Campaign) and Clean Production Action found PBDEs in dust swiped from computers in university labs, legislative offices, and a children’s museum; many similar studies would further illustrate the ubiquity of these compounds in our everyday environments. That same year, penta- and octaBDEs were phased out of manufacture and import in the US. By 2009, the US producers of decaPBDE had reached an agreement with EPA to phase it out from manufacture, import and sale by 2013. DecaPBDE has been used in television casings, cell phones, and other electronics. EPA’s Design for Environment (DfE) program has conducted a Flame Retardant Alternatives for DecaBDE Partnership, which released a final report in January of this year. Three other DfE partnership programs have focused on flame retardants, underscoring the recognition by the government and industry that many of these substances require replacement with safer compounds (see the DfE partnerships related to flame retardant alternatives for HBCD, those used in circuit boards, and those used in furniture).

Despite efforts to phase out and replace specific flame retardants linked to negative impacts, these compounds continue to be a problem in general. For example, some of the phased out PBDEs may still be in your home or office, if you have older electronic devices, or furniture containing treated foam. People don’t replace items like couches all that often, and those of us attuned to sustainability try to extend the useful life of the products we own as long as possible. This situation is an example of how you really can’t define any action as being entirely “green”–it’s good to keep items longer, but the tradeoff could be continued exposure to toxins. PBDEs and other flame retardants can also present occupational exposure risks in electronics recycling facilities where the compounds can become airborne during dismantling processes. Such facilities will continue to deal with older products that contain phased out compounds into the future; you’ve probably heard about the volumes of old CRT TVs and monitors electronics recyclers deal with, and the issues surrounding the lead within them. Consider that all those old monitors probably have cases with phased-out toxic flame retardants in them as well. And if established procedures are not always successful in preventing lead exposures in recycling operations, as has recently been illustrated, then it’s also possible existing controls may not be effectively protecting workers from flame retardants. I won’t even get into the whole issue of informal recycling of electronics, and the releases of flame retardants into the environment that surely results from such operations.

To make matters worse, some of the early-adopted alternatives have already been shown to be problematic themselves. Organophosphates, for example, have been used for decades as flame retardants in consumer goods, and their use increased as a replacement for the brominated flame retardants which were being phased out. But recent studies have detected higher than expected levels of organophosphates in outdoor air, including sites around the Great Lakes, suggesting that this class of compounds, which also is associated with its own list of human health concerns, could be as persistent, toxic, and as easily transported as the compounds it replaced. One particular organophosphate, known as “tris” or “chlorinated tris” was turned to as alternative to PBDEs, and has received a lot of recent attention as a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group and Duke University scientists was released showing blood levels of tris in toddlers that were on average five times higher than that in their mothers. Since toddlers are more sensitive than adults to chemicals that can effect hormones and metabolism, this finding is particularly disturbing. It’s likely that this result is due to the fact that these compounds so readily leach out of products, like furniture, and get into dust, just as PBDEs were shown to. Since toddlers tend to play on the floor and pop objects into their mouths, they’re at increased risk of exposure to toxin-laden dust than adults. It’s interesting to note that tris was eliminated from use in children’s pajamas in 1977 when it was found to be mutagenic, but it has continued to be used in other products, particularly in the types of foams found within furniture.

The multitude of issues related to these compounds have lead others, besides the health care systems mentioned earlier, to advocate for limiting exposure to flame retardants period, and re-examining their widespread use. The Green Science Policy Institute, for example, argues that flame retardants are used, particularly in electronics, in instances beyond those in which evidence supports the need for external resistance to candle flame ignition. (See The Case against Candle Resistant TVs published earlier this year, and The Case against Candle Resistant Electronics from 2008). Among other issues, they point out that widespread flame retardant chemical use may pose a clear occupational exposure threat to firefighters, since once a fire does start, the by-products released from the burning of materials containing them may cause greater risk to firefighter health than smoke not containing such by-products. They are not the only entity to suggest this (see this article in the Huffington Post, for example).

Incidentally, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once used as flame retardants, among other things; their production was banned in the US in 1979 due to their toxicity and persistence in the environment. Despite this, we are still dealing with exposure to PCBs and how to properly dispose of materials containing PCBs. Just yesterday (9/17), a workshop addressing PCBs and Their Impact on Illinois was held at the University of Illinois at Chicago and simultaneously broadcast at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), host agency for both GLRPPR and the Sustainable Electronics Initiative. Part of the impetus for the workshop was a recent political controversy over whether to allow a landfill situated over a large aquifer to be permitted to accept materials containing PCBs. Options for safe disposal of PCB contaminated materials remain limited and expensive. Like PBDEs, PCBs fell into the category of halogenated flame retardants; in their case the halogen involved was chlorine rather than bromine.

And like PCBs, other types of flame retardants are likely to persist not only in the environment, but on our list of headaches to deal with in terms of policy and disposal/clean up, well beyond the time at which any specific one of them may be banned or phased out. They represent a current, easy-to-relate-to example of why pollution prevention techniques, such as the employment of green chemistry, green engineering, and design for environment during the product design and development phase are so essential to human and environmental well being.

The comparative environmental impact of e-mail and paper mail

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 by

This post originally appeared on Environmental News Bits.

Several days ago, a friend made a sarcastic comment on Facebook about how much better e-mail is for the environment (in the context of spammers choosing e-mail over paper mail). That made me wonder about the relative impact of paper vs. electronic mail. So, I did what librarians do: I went to Google and started searching. Here’s what I found.

There have been a couple of life cycle studies of paper mail delivery. Pitney-Bowes published a study in 2008 which found that:

…the distribution of letter mail by the Posts generates, on average, about 20 grams of CO2 per letter delivered. In addition, a survey of more than a dozen studies shows that the indicative range of CO2 emissions associated with the upstream mail piece creation process is about 0.9 – 1.3 grams of CO2 per gram of paper. (p. 2).

The U.S. Postal Service commissioned a similar study in 2008, which found:

  • Total energy consumed by the four mail products accounts for 0.6% of national energy consumption, a figure that seems reasonable given the quantities of mail in the U.S. economy, and the energy-intensive nature of paper and board production, printing, and motor vehicle transportation.
  • At the household level, energy and CO2 emissions associated with the entire mail life cycle are roughly comparable to those from operating any of several common home appliances over the same period of time. (p.ES-2)

Both the Pitney-Bowes and USPS studies also looked at other environmental impacts, including waste generation and recycling rates. The Pitney-Bowes report also did a preliminary investigation of electronic communications compared to mail, which found that energy use of information communication technology is about 2% of total U.S. energy use, which is comparable to that of the paper industry. They were unable to calculate a comparative environmental footprint for the two methods.

In 2009, McAfee commissioned a report on the environmental impact of junk e-mail (spam). The results were eye-opening:

  • An estimated worldwide total of 62 trillion spam emails were sent in 2008
  • The average spam email causes emissions equivalent to 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per message
  • Globally, annual spam energy use totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), or 33 terawatt hours (TWh). That’s equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes, with the same GHG emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using two billion U.S. gallons of gasoline. (Key Findings)

There are also several research papers which explore the overall environmental impact of electronic communications, including e-mail and e-commerce. These include:

Although on a per message basis, it appears that e-mail has a lower environmental footprint that of paper mail, the comparative ease and perceived low or no cost of e-mail makes it more likely that people will choose it over paper mail, which requires a stamp and a trip to a mailbox or post office. In aggregate, e-mail has a significant environmental footprint, which may be even higher than that of paper mail.

The bottom line: Although e-mail appears to be a better environmental choice than paper mail because there is no obvious up-front waste stream, the research paints a much more nuanced picture, particularly when the including the environmental impact of electronics manufacturing and data center operation.

Students Honored for Fresh Ideas in Sustainable Electronics

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 by

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center’s Sustainable Electronics Initiative has announced the winners of the International Sustainable Electronics Competition.

The winners in the Product Category (items intended for sale) were:

  • E-waste Meets Farming, smart phones remanufactured as cow collars (Platinum, $3,000) Michael Van Dord, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia;
  • Mion, a multi-purpose dynamo lighting system (Gold, $2,000) Mikenna Tansley, Jiayi Li, Fren Mah, Russell Davidson, and Kapil Vachhar from the University of Alberta, Canada;
  • Cellscreen, a large scale display system made from old phone displays (Silver, $1,000) Sam Johnston, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.

One platinum level ($3,000) winner was named in the Non-product Category (concepts valuable for artistic, educational, policy, or similar content):

  • ENERGENCIA, a children’s’ game encouraging the use of recycled materials and renewable energy concepts by Stephanie Vázquez and Pedro Baños of Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey Campus Puebla, Mexico.

The videos of the winning entries are featured on the competition site, ewaste.illinois.edu, the SEI site, sustainelectronics.illinois.edu, and SEI’s You Tube channel, youtube.com/seiatistc.

Webinar: Using the GreenScreen™ to Identify Preferred Materials in HP’s Global Supply Chain

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012 by

Thu, Nov 1, 2012 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM EDT
Register at https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/3362707123641864448

This webinar will provide an introduction to the GreenScreen™ for Safer Chemicals and one user’s experience. The GreenScreen is a method for comparative chemical hazard assessment that is currently used by a growing number of large manufacturers of products ranging from chemicals to electronics, apparel and footwear. That user is Hewlett Packard (HP) who has been a leader in using comparative chemical hazard assessment, specifically the GreenScreen, to identify safer alternatives to chemicals of concern in their global material supply chain.

Join Us for a Webinar on Sustainable Electronics Wednesday, Sept. 19

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 by

Join us tomorrow, September 19 at noon Central time, when Dr. Callie Babbitt of the Rochester Institute of Technology presents “Adapting Ecological Models for Linking Sustainable Production and Consumption Dynamic in Consumer Electronic Product Systems.” Registration for the webinar is available at https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/541176247.

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Webinar–”Electronic Waste: Our Problem and What We Should Do About It”

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 by

Join us for a webinar on Wednesday, September 5, 2012, 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM CDT. This seminar will be hosted live at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) in Champaign, IL, and simultaneously broadcast online. The presentation will be archived on the ISTC web site (see http://www.istc.illinois.edu/about/sustainability_seminars.cfm for more information and additional webinar archives).

Presenters include William Bullock, Affiliate with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and Professor of Industrial Design in the School of Art and Design, U of I at Urbana-Champaign; and Joy Scrogum, Emerging Technologies Resource Specialist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, Prairie Research Institute, U of I at Urbana- Champaign.

See the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) Blog for further information and a link to the online registration form.

2012 International E-Waste Design Competition Announced

Friday, July 6th, 2012 by

e-waste competition logoThe Sustainable Electronics Initiative has announced the 2012 International E-Waste Design Competition. Registration is free and open to current and recent college and university students, from any discipline, throughout the world. Participants submit ideas on products or services that will either prevent the generation of e-waste by prolonging the useful life of electronic products, or that reuse e-waste components in a new product. Entries include, among other components, a brief YouTube video describing the proposed product or service. Registration opens September 1, 2012. For full details, see the announcement on the Sustainable Electronics Initiative Blog.

As part of its continuing partnership with the Sustainable Electronics Initiative, GLRPPR will be co-hosting a series of webinars focused on sustainable electronics research and issues in Fall 2012. Look for more information on the presenters here in the GLRPPR Blog in late August, and check the GLRPPR Calendar for the webinars, as scheduling is confirmed.

Deadline Extended for International E-Waste Design Competition

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 by

International E-Waste Design Competition LogoThere’s still time to submit entries for the 2011 International E-Waste Design Competition. The deadline has been extended to 4:59 p.m. CT, May 9, 2011. College students and recent graduates from around the world submit ideas for reusing e-waste to create new and useful products, or for preventing its generation in the first place (e.g. by re-designing an existing electronic device to facilitate reuse or otherwise extend the product life cycle). Entries include, among other elements, a video uploaded to YouTube highlighting the proposed design idea. Six winning teams or individuals (three in each of two categories) will receive monetary prizes. The competition is part of the educational component of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI; www.sustainelectronics.illinois.edu). For more information and online registration, see www.ewaste.illinois.edu, or contact Joy Scrogum at jscrogum@istc.illinois.edu or 217-333-8948.

ISTC Receives Pair of National Environmental Awards

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 by

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) has received a pair of national environmental awards. Awards were received for the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) and by Dr. Tim Lindsey.

MVP2 Awards

The 2010 Most Valuable Pollution Prevention (MVP2) awards presented by the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR) celebrate the successes of innovators in the areas of pollution prevention and sustainability. These prestigious awards were presented recently at a ceremony in Washington, DC.  ISTC is a unit of the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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International E-waste Design Competition Turns Refuse into Resource

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009 by

Electronic waste, or “E-Waste,” generated by computers, TVs, cameras, printers, and cell phones, is a growing global issue. According to the U.S. EPA, Americans currently own nearly 3 billion electronic products and as new products are purchased, obsolete products are stored or discarded at alarming rates. About two-thirds of the electronic devices removed from service are still in working order. However, only about 15% of this material is recycled while the vast majority is disposed in landfills. The Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI), hosted by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), is pleased to announce the International E-Waste Design Competition, in which participants will explore solutions to this problem at the local level and beyond, by using e-waste components to create appealing and useful products.

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