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.

Continuing the Conversation

Last week we announced some highlights from our symposium held in February. Electronics & Sustainability: Design for Energy and the Environment elicited a frenzy of information and thought provoking ideas. An extensive amount of topics were covered through a variety of perspectives.

In hopes of continuing the discussion I plan on posting a multi-part series addressing different topics raised at the symposium.

The first of this series will continue the topic from a recent post: export.

Continue reading “Continuing the Conversation”

SEI Symposium

Symposium PictureThe 2010 Electronics and Sustainability: Design for Energy and the Environment Symposium held two weeks ago was a great success! Over 20 impressive speakers in the fields of academia, manufacturing, retail, government, and recycling presented their take on electronics and sustainability. We had an impressive turnout, lively conversation, and overall, a great time had by all.

Here are some highlights from the event: Continue reading “SEI Symposium”

Electronics and Sustainability: Design for Energy and the Environment

greenearthThe Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI), part of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), is hosting their first electronics and sustainability symposium. The event will be he held on February 23 and 24, 2010 at the I-Hotel and Conference Center.

Continue reading “Electronics and Sustainability: Design for Energy and the Environment”