SEI Receives National Award

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. Continue reading “SEI Receives National Award”

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

When consumers purchase electronics, they have usually been considering which new gadget to buy for a while. For example, when upgrading phones, consumers may shop at different wireless companies, comparing and contrasting the look, feel, features, and quality of what will soon be their new toy. All of us have been there! I became a Blackberry enthusiast (and that is putting it lightly) about two years ago. I was browsing for new phones that would meet my phone expectations, but that would also have that new pizazz and would almost have that “new phone smell.” After a few months of research, I headed to my wireless company and picked up my new little electronic bundle of joy! I was more excited than words can describe about my new, shiny, red, perfectly wonderful and could-do-no-wrong Blackberry. It was a simple transaction, I hand over my money and sign a renewal contract with the company, and I receive my lovely new gadget! What could be wrong about that?

To answer my own question: conflict materials! In short, conflict materials are earth elements that are necessary for many electronic applications. For example, these materials keep your electronics from overheating, help materials maintain an electronic charge, or make the “vibrate” function of your phone possible. Elizabeth Dias of Time Magazine wrote “First Blood Diamonds, Now Blood Computers?,” explaining why these materials are referred to as “conflict materials.” Unfortunately, the trade of these materials is controlled by militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The money used to purchase the conflict materials has been used to fuel a gruesome war within the DRC, where miners (including women and children) are forced to work long hours under horrible conditions. The miners live in fear, as armed guards watch over them. In addition, the militia is also taxing their workers an exorbitant amount, making their livelihoods continuously dependent on harsh working and living conditions. The powers in charge not only use their power to exploit the workers of DRC, but they also use extreme violence and fear tactics to intimidate workers. Most people living in militia-controlled regions live in fear of their lives, as massacres of entire families as well as brutal rapes are a common practice. Lydia Polgreen and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have additionally published articlesCongo’s Riches, Looted by Renegade Troops” and “Death by Gadget,” respectively, to shed light to this problem.

Similar to my previous post titled “Future of electronics after 2012,” I am not only concerned about what the problems are. Instead, I am interested in possible solutions. Jeffrey Davis of Green Lifestyle Magazine published “Conflict Materials in Electronics” where he explains the current problem with conflict materials. Furthermore, he discusses possible solutions. An obvious recommendation many have is for manufacturers to stop purchasing “conflict materials.” This action, however, could result in more violence as the militia would not have their source of income, which would only make for worse living conditions of the miners and workers. Davis offers additional ways we can help the people of the DRC.

Additionally, several organizations’ aim to aid the people of the Congo and are determined to find ways to bring attention to this cause. Two main organizations focusing on the Congo and the “Conflict Material” problem are Enough! Project and Raise Hope for the Congo. In addition, Rachel Cernansky of Planet Green published Conflict Minerals 101: Coltan, the Congo Act, and How You Can Help, offering further information about conflict materials and ways to help the current conflict in the Congo.

While most consumers are unaware of the current “conflict materials” problem, the US government seems to be paying attention. On January 5, 2010, President Obama signed Pub.L. 111-203/HR 4173, also known as Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The act would require some electronics manufacturers to disclose where they obtained conflict materials in the DRC or an adjoining country. Companies would be required to report this to the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and place the information on their website. Furthermore, companies may also need to hire external auditors and provide additional information to the SEC. Baker and McKenszie has published a Client Alert titled “New Reporting and Audit Obligations for High-Tech and Other Manufacturers” on August 16, which details the act, by providing an executive summary, reporting requirements, and practical considerations.

While purchasing electronics for most people within the United States can be done inexpensively, most consumers, including myself, do not think about the negative consequences our actions have. When handing our money to electronics manufacturers and distributors in order to get the newest, coolest phone, our bank account is not the only thing that takes a hit. As a society, we need to be aware of the materials, mining and manufacturing processes that occur in order to bring us the electronics we want.

Future of electronics after 2012

Whenever electronics are discussed, the conversation always involves the argument that electronics are environmentally damaging. In order to make electronics, we need materials that have to be mined out of the ground, be highly processed, and manufactured in astronomically high quantities. Electronics also require energy to function, and many electronic components are often discarded with little or no consideration about the materials, energy, and time that went into making the product.

rareearthIf all of the previous points were not enough, I unfortunately have yet another thing to add: the consumption of rare earth materials. The phrase “rare earth materials” has been used frequently when discussing many technologically advanced designs, but what exactly does this phrase mean? Rare earth materials are 17 metallic elements, all of which have similar properties, as they reside in the same families within the periodic table of elements. The elements are: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium, and yttrium [1].

While the general consumer may not hear about many of these individual elements, one thing is certain: They are vital to our current technologically-charged world. These materials are used in fiber optics, hybrid car batteries, x-ray units, magnets used in computer hard drives, and many other applications [2]. While many of us enjoy the applications of rare earth materials (REM), we may not be able to enjoy them for much longer. Since these materials are rare, it seems that we have currently depleted 95% to 97%, depending on which article you read, of the Earth’s REMs [3]. The rapid depletion of these materials becomes alarmingly more critical, since China controls most of the materials. More significantly, some reports have stated that China has been decreasing their REM exports and will completely stop them in 2012. (If you believe that the world will end in 2012, I am sure this news rings a very loud and alarming bell.)

While one may easily dismiss articles published by The Economic Collapse as pure paranoia, it is much harder to dismiss several claims by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In April of 2010, the GAO gave a presentation, which is publicly available, titled “Rare Earth Materials in the Defense Supply Chain“. The report explains further information and details about rare earth materials, their applications, as well as possible solutions to the REM depletion.

Slide 16 of the GAO report lists other countries with rare earth material deposits. The list of countries includes the U.S., China, Australia, Brazil, India, Malaysia, and others. Furthermore, the report mentions that work new rare earth material mines needs to be begin. IndustryWeek reports of a mine in California that was previously used to mine REMs within the United States, but the mine’s Chinese competitors successfully drove the mine out of business. Naturally, an option under consideration is the re-opening of this new mine, which would take at least 3-5 years to become fully operational. In order to create a completely new mine, significant capital investment is needed in order to get the mine 100% operational in 7-15 years, according to the GAO. In the best case scenario, that leaves the U.S. and remainder of the world without REMs 1-3 years, or in the worst case scenario, this would be 5-13 years.

Some sources, such as the Natural News, suggest that we (the global, societal “we”) should recycle rare earth materials. After all, there is a significant market for recycling common metals such as lead, copper, and aluminum. The UN Environmental Programme has stated the importance of metals recycling. In fact, the UNEP has published a report stating current metal recycling rates and also explains the need for increased recycling of specific materials of interest. A press release from May 13, 2010, offers a brief summary as well as a link to the full text of the report.

If you read this post and all of its related links, you may start believing in the Mayan prediction for the year 2012. But the goal of this blog post is not to scare or stir people into a frenzy. Instead, the goal of this post is to inform and brainstorm! Because of this, I want to involve you, the reader. I want your input and feedback. What do you think can be done? Is increased mining the answer? Do we need to find new technologies for recycling these precious materials? Can the world’s brilliant scientists create new materials which would have the desired properties of rare earth materials? What other options can you offer?

While the technical questions are important, it is vital to also ask several social questions. For example, if you do believe in being eco-conscious, how much are you willing to give up in order to save these precious metals? Will you hold on to your computer, cell phone, or other device for 2-3 instead of 1.5 years, if it will save some rare earth materials which could be used in medical equipment that can save someone’s life? What are you willing to give up? And how much of it?

There are many more questions that I could ask, but I think these brain teasers should be enough. What do you think? I would love to enter a dialogue, not of “The world is ending!” but, “This is a problem, and here is what we can do”. Please, I invite you all, scientists, engineers, designers, environmentalists, students, consumers and everyone else to humor me for a few minutes. Let me know what you think about this subject!

Death of Advanced Recycling Fee?

thumb1In the last few weeks, the issue of California’s e-waste recycling has become an increasingly prominent issue.  When speaking of US electronic waste rules, the general statement was “California is the only one with an advanced recycling fee (ARF)”, but their process seemed to work. After all, California’s e-waste laws have been in place much longer than e-waste legislation of other states. Unfortunately, it seems that California’s model of e-waste collection has unfortunately failed.

It seems that in 2002, when e-waste legislation was first considered and drafted, California also considered manufacturer responsibility legislation (Modesto Bee), which is currently used by 21 states. The voices of the tech industry, however, prevailed and California passed an e-waste recycling law requiring an advanced recycling fee (ARF). Given this legislation, when a customer purchases a new monitor or television, they are charged a fee (between $8 and $25), which should in turn be used to recycle the purchased equipment. The goal of the program was to provide a way for consumers to dispose of their electronics responsibly while providing funds for a green industry (Sacramento Bee). While the state had good intentions, no one could foresee the fraudulent activities that would take place.

Due to the amount of state-funding, hundreds of new electronics recyclers sprung up throughout the state (Merced Sun-Star). State officials passing the ARF legislation only counted on the environmental spirits in the state, but they did not foresee the greed that would take over the program. This has led to organizations importing electronics from Arizona and other neighboring states, in order to recycle the electronics within California and receive money for recycling such electronics products. To date, the state of California has paid approximately $320 million for electronics recycling, since the law’s passing in 2005 (Desert Dispatch). The state additionally recognizes that approximately $30 million have been used to recycle electronics which came in from other states, but it has rejected approximately $23 million of fraudulent claims. The Sacramento Bee offers a chart detailing California’s recyclers with the most claim denials.

Understandably, many are angered by the news and knowing their money is used to recycle e-waste  brought in from illegally other states. Environmentalists, however, have another problem with California’s law and its mistreatment – the disposal of usable monitors. California’s model makes it more enticing for people to recycle their “old” but usable monitors, instead of using them until they physically break or donating them to a charitable organization. ScrippsNews tackles this issue in their article “Mounds of usable computer monitors in Calif. dumps“.

So how can California handle this apparent fraud and misuse of their laws and funds? Will they change their laws to reflect other US states? If so, how long will this process take? What can be done in the meantime? These questions need answers – and soon! The failing system needs to go to the root of the problem, update legislation to meet these new challenges, and with proper care and maintenance, the system will be working better, more effectively, and should last for a very long time.

Data security of discarded electronics

One of the most common concerns regarding electronics recycling and disposal is the issue of data security. As people use online banking and other online payment system, the concern for data security is legitimate. Personally, I would not want to recycle a computer knowing that I may be risking identity theft – and I think that many will agree. The same also extends to larger companies and corporations, who may have very sensitive data on their computers, such as employee social security cards, proprietary information, detailed budget breakdowns and more. The need for data removal was pointed out in a New York Times article titled “Deleted but not Gone“.

So hoHDw does one secure data left in obsolete computers? There are three main options 1) “Soft” data removal, which keeps the hard drive in tact; 2) Physical hard drive destruction (hard drive + hammer = data security); 3) degaussing. No one will argue that physical hard drive destruction will lead to data security. Degaussing is also a way to remove data securely. Essentially, degaussing will de-magnetize the hard drive, destroying all the data and rendering the hard drive useless. “Soft” data destruction is a bit more contentious.

According to Peter Gutmann, data should be overwritten 35 times in order to effectively remove all data. Additionally, the US Department of Defense states that data should be erased and overwritten 7 times, in order to effectively remove all data. In addition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology offers detailed Guidelines for Media Sanitization. But which of these is correct, and is it possible to only erase data once in order for it to be effectively removed?

According to Lidija Davis, both Windows and Apple offer programs that will effectively remove all data. eHow lists Darik’s Boot and Nuke software as the main option to remove data securely while maintaining hard ware functionality. Additional data erasing software includes Active@Kill Disc Hard Drive Eraser, Acronis Disc Cleanser, and Blancco. Additional information about hard drive security and data erasure can be found through TechSoup Global’s article titled “Obliterate Hard-Drive Data with Disk-Wiping Software“.

The software deletion programs listed above are only some examples and should not be viewed as an advertisement or support for any software company or data removal method.

Exciting new electronic designs

As I have been browsing the internet for new e-waste related news, I have found a few news items that have sparked my interest. All of the following are exciting, since they promote the use of less energy and also less electronic waste. This is not an advertisement for a particular organization or company, but of a pat on the back to the designers and engineers who are concerned about sustainability.

1. Universal Laptop Chargers

asusTwo Taiwanese companies have openly stated that they are in favor of universal laptop chargers! The two companies are Asustek and Acer, who place fifth and second, in all worldwide laptop shipments (PC Pro). This is very exciting news, as chargers and other laptop and electronics accessories are large suppliers of electronic waste. According to DigiTimes, manufacturers such as  Quanta Computer, Compal Electronics, Wistron, Pegatron Technology and Inventec also support the move to uniform laptop chargers. I am interested to see this new development, since verbal support does not always materialize in financial support. As someone who lives in a household with three laptops for two people, I would be very happy to see a move to a more efficient use of our resources and cables.

2. Bike-Powered Electronic Devices

Cell phones are ubiquitous in today’s society, and one thing accompanying cell phones are their chargers. nokiabicyclechargerkit01There have been several design concepts suggesting various ways to charge cell phones by simply using kinetic energy; these ideas include foot power, cranking, rotating, and more (Green Diary). One concept I have heard about on several occasions have been a bicycle-powered cell phone charger. Most designs I have heard about, however, have been student project designs with little marketing capabilities. But it seems that Nokia has created a bike-powered cell phone charger that is marketed toward developing nations or nations with high bike-riding populations (Inhabitat). As someone who loves to ride her bike to work and also forgets to charge her cell phone frequently, this concept is perfect – and perfectly sustainable! With this new product, you can charge your phone, help the environment, and also prevent your cell phone charger from turning into an energy vampire.

3. Cell Phone Charger Energy Vampire Slayer

vampire_finalAs briefly mentioned above, cell phone chargers have a tendency to be energy vampires. Energy vampires are devices that draw energy while plugged into a wall but not plugged into another device. This means that you cell phone is drawing energy when it is only plugged into the wall and not plugged into your cell phone as well. To combat this problem, AT&T has recently announced their first Zero Draw charger. This new technology turns off the charger once your phone or other electronic device is fully charged. This helps protect the environment and your pocketbook! In addition, this charger also aims to increase its compatibility with various chargers and ports.

I hope that you share my excitement in these new developments. I hope the market will answer in a positive way that will only encourage more sustainable design!

New Website Section – SEI Resources!

Education of a Higher DegreeThe Sustainable Electronics Initiative has added an exciting section to our website – SEI Resources (http://www.sustainelectronics.illinois.edu/resources/index.cfm)! This page has been under construction for quite some time, and we are very happy to say that it is now running in full swing!

SEI Resources are collections of records for both online and hard copy material grouped by subject. This is much like an online filing cabinet of information related to greening the design, manufacture, reuse or recycling of electronic products. Relevant events, funding opportunities and archived questions and answers from the “Ask an Expert” service are also included. Within each broad subject are more specific, sub-categorized lists (for example, within the “Education” Resource section, you may select more specific resource lists related on “Case Studies,” “Consumer Education,” “Continuing Education,” etc.) to make browsing through the included information easier.

Each item listed within a Resource has a full record containing the item’s title, a brief abstract, a link to the item (if it is available online), date of publication, source and resource type. Price and ordering information are listed for hard copy items where available.

You may further customize your browsing experience by choosing to filter the information within each subject or sub-category by one or more “audience” types, which indicate the groups that might find a particular item of interest. For example, filtering by “Consumer Information” will pull up information on health risks, statistics, tips for prolonging the life of your electronics, how to recycle or donate used electronic products, information on greener product choices, etc. Filtering by “Manufacturing & Design” will narrow the list of results to items related to best practices, case studies, resources and research on various topics related to the manufacturing and sustainable design of electronic products. If you do not filter the items within a particular category by audience, you will see a list of all the references related to the subject. Filtering by audience is simply a way to narrow your results and make browsing through the items in our database easier.

The resources are updated with news and new resources on a regular basis, and our goal is to make this one of the most comprehensive resource sections regarding electronics design, manufacture, materials, distribution, collection, regulations, and much more. Be sure to check out the resources for recent news and reports. Happy researching!

Where do I recycle my old electronics?

e_recycleDuring the last few weeks, I have received an increasing number of emails asking where people can recycle their old electronics. If you search for this answer online, you will probably be bombarded with various possibilities to return the electronics to manufacturers, sell your electronics for some extra cash, recycle your old electronics for a charitable cause, or simply bring the electronics to a national retailer. Another option, of course, is to bring your old electronics to a state-run or -approved collection event. Sometimes, going through pages and pages of information is not only time consuming, but it is also overwhelming.

To save you a headache, I took on the task of finding various e-waste collection and recycling methods. You can view various Electronic Take-Back and Donation Programs in a neat, easy-to understand format. This spreadsheet groups various electronic collection and recycling organizations in the following categories: Retailer Recycling Programs, Manufacturer Take-Back Programs, Electronics Trade-In Programs, Electronic Donation/Charity Programs, and State Collection Programs.

Rather than only providing you with links, the spreadsheet also tells you if you can simply drop off your equipment at a location, or if the electronics can be simply mailed to a facility. In addition, you can also find out simply which electronics are accepted by the various organizations. More importantly, I have also included links to various data-erasure methods. A common concern many consumers have is the security of their data before they turn in their old electronics.

In order to erase personal information from cell phones, feel free to visit the following websites:

To remove personal information from computers, the following services are available:

The Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) does not endorse any specific data-erasing programs. The stated programs were listed for general consumer data and do not signify endorsement.

Did we leave anyone off? If we missed any electronic take-back organizations or charities, please let us know at sei@istc.illinois.edu.

Three new state e-waste laws!

bill_englishIn the past two months, three new states have passed state-wide legislation requiring increased producer responsibility for the collection and proper disposal of electronic waste. Vermont was the first state to pass a new e-waste law in 2010. Shortly, South Carolina and New York State followed suit! This is fantastic news, as electronic waste is an increasing problem. At the moment, there are still seven other states which have proposed e-waste laws which will hopefully be passed in the next 6 to 12 months.

In my opinion, increased e-waste laws only indicate an increased interest in solving the current e-waste problem. Two of the states not only require e-waste collection, but they also impose a disposal ban on electronic equipment!

In Vermont, Act 079/S77 was passed in April of 2010 and takes effect on Jan. 1, 2011. Like all other extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, the state requires electronics manufacturers, recyclers, retailers, and refurbishers of electronics to register with the state. If an organization is not registered, they will be unable to continue their business within the state of Vermont. The bill requires the collection and proper disposal of desktops, laptops, CRTs,  TVs, monitors, computer peripherals (keyboard, mice, etc.), and printers.

South Carolina’s HB 4093 was passed on May 19, 2010, and it takes affect on Jul. 1, 2011. Similar to the Vermont law, South Carolina also requires the state registration of electronic manufacturers, retailers, collectors, refurbishers, and recyclers. South Carolina requires the collection and disposal of desktops, laptops, CRTs, televisions and monitors. Unlike Vermont, South Carolina does not require the collection and disposal of computer peripherals and printers. Along with requiring the collection of electronics, South Carolina also included a disposal ban in the HB 4093 bill. The disposal ban forbids the disposal of computers, monitors, CTTs, televisions, and printers in municipal waste locations, starting on Jul 1, 2011.

Most recently, New York state has passed a comprehensive e-waste bill, which requires the registration of electronic manufacturers, collectors, recyclers, refurbishers, and retailers.The bill A 11308/S 7988, Title 27 requires proper disposal as well as enforces a disposal ban on the following electronics: televisions, monitors, desktops, laptops, computer peripherals, printers, and fax machines.

A detailed chart showing the differences between the various e-waste laws is available online on the SEI website. The chart may also be downloaded as a PDF.

30% of use still means there is 70% waste

apple_iphoneRecently, AppleInsider published a story titled “Nearly 30% of Apple’s first-gen iPhones are still in use – report“. In short, the report mentions several statistics regarding the first generation iPhone. Please keep in mind that the first iPhone was released in June 2007, only to be replaced by the iPhone 3G in July 2008. That means that this phone was marketed (very well, if I remember correctly) for a mere 13 months.  The first generation iPhone sold 6.1 million units, which were  most likely all purchased within those 13 months. After all, why would someone want to buy an old version of a phone, if the newer, cooler, faster, sleeker model is available for a similar price?

The report names several other statistic, but I want to focus on the main statistic here. 30% of first generation iPhones are still being used. This means that 1.83 million first generation iPhones are still in use. And yes, that is a large number. However, 4.27 million is a greater number – this represents the amount of first generation iPhones that are no longer in use. What happened to these phones? Did they break? Did they suffer a fall that rendered them incapable of functioning correctly? I bet this happened only rarely. Instead, Apple came out with a new product. This product was superior to the previous generation of Apple products.  If my memory serves me correctly, since the introduction of the first generation iPhone, the world has also been introduced to two more generations of iPhones, as well as the iTouch and the brand new iPad. (And in related news: Apple Sold 1 million iPads in a month!)

While these new gadgets are a lot of fun, I am concerned about our lasting impact on the environment. The resources and natural capital needed to make these products is expensive, as well as environmentally hazardous. More importantly, the vast disposal and often improper disposal methods increase our need for a more sustainable system. However, Electronics Recyclers International CEO John Shegerian seems to disagree with me. In the article “Why the E-Waste Industry Love the iPad“, he mentions that this the iPad is a good thing.

I wonder if it is possible to allow designers to be creative and create new products, which would add to existing gadgets, instead of creating a desire for increased disposal and consumption of new products? Even if Apple, or any other electronics designer and manufacturer, would introduce a new performance-based, rather than product-based, model for their business and industry. We still have to convince consumers  that a cell phone, computer, or other electronic device can function to its full potential by simply maintaining the equipment, similar to the way you maintain your car, and possibly upgrading to a few new features. This would allow us to use our new gadgets until they actually fail, instead of only lasting as long as we think they are fun. For example, when the seats in your car start to wear down, do you get rid of your car and purchase a new one? Why can’t we have the same model for our electronics?

Apple is obviously concerned about their impact on the environment, as they have published information about the carbon emissions related to their products. By performing such analyses, one only hopes that Apple designers and engineers will be able to make products which will improve their products by leaving a lower environmental footprint. But I do want to encourage Apple and other electronic recyclers to research the life cycle impacts of their products, and consider not only the design of their products, but also the lasting environmental impact their products will leave on the Earth and future generations.