Promoting a more sustainable system for designing, producing, using, and managing electronic devices.
Author: Joy Scrogum
Joy is a Sustainability Specialist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has worked on developing & maintaining online resources for the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable since 2001. As part of ISTC's Technical Assistance Program, she works on Zero Waste Illinois projects with clients throughout the state, and waste reduction outreach projects including the Illini Gadget Garage and the Green Lunchroom Challenge. Key past projects include coordinating the International Sustainable Electronics Competition, developing & teaching ENG 498 "Sustainable Technology: Environmental & Social Impacts of Innovations," & Greening Schools, which focused on making K-12 facilities & curricula more sustainable. https://www.linkedin.com/in/joyscrogum/
A collaborative effort in Michigan is considering recycling and repurposing capacity and opportunities in the state of Michigan, as reported by Chioma Lewis for Great Lakes Echo:
A new project by recycling company Battery Solutions and sustainability-focused group NextEnergy aims to make electric vehicle recycling opportunity recommendations to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy by February 2022.
The project is funded by a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy as part of their NextCycle Michigan initiative.
A major part of the project is to build capacity in the state for repurposing and recycling electric vehicle batteries, said Jim Saber, the president and CEO of NextEnergy.
The six-stage project will involve cataloging, evaluating and analyzing Michigan’s electric vehicle battery supply chain and infrastructure.
The project will also analyze gaps in electric vehicle battery secondary use and recycling opportunities.
Electric vehicle battery components could be reclaimed for use in the creation of new batteries or other products, while intact batteries might be repurposed for renewable power or other energy storage applications.
“The idea is to simplify how solar energy is harvested and stored,” says Michael De Volder, a mechanical engineer at the University of Cambridge who led the work. If the team can improve the efficiency and lifetime of the hybrid device, its cost will likely be lower than combining solar cells and batteries. “For the price of a battery, you get both functionalities,” he says.
This low cost could make it suitable for off-grid uses and for regions of the world that lack access to affordable energy.
The workhorse of the new light-rechargeable battery is a cathode made of vanadium pentoxide nanofibers. The material stores lithium ions and also harvests light to generate paired electrons and positive charges, or holes. The researchers mixed the nanofibers with poly(3-hexylthiophene-2,5-diyl) (P3HT) that blocks the movement of holes, and graphene oxide that aids electron transport.”
A glass window on the cathode side of a coin cell allows light to reach the nanofibers. This new device is more efficient than previously developed light-rechargeable batteries and can be recharged for over 200 cycles. Though the efficiency of this battery is still too low for practical use, researchers hope to explore alternatives to vanadium pentoxide to improve efficiency.
As reported on Phys.org, researchers from the National University of Singapore have created a 3D printed prototype of a shoe insole that evaporates sweat faster than normal and uses the harvested moisture to generate energy:
“In our new invention, we created a novel film that is extremely effective in evaporating sweat from our skin and then absorbing the moisture from sweat. We also take this one step further—by converting the moisture from sweat into energy that could be used to power small wearable devices,” explained research team leader Assistant Professor Tan Swee Ching, who is from the NUS Department of Material Science and Engineering.
The main components of the novel thin film are two hygroscopic chemicals—cobalt chloride and ethanolamine. Besides being extremely moisture-absorbent, this film can rapidly release water when exposed to sunlight, and it can be ‘regenerated’ and reused for more than 100 times.
To make full use of the absorbed sweat, the NUS team has also designed a wearable energy harvesting device comprising eight electrochemical cells (ECs), using the novel film as the electrolyte. Each EC can generate about 0.57 volts of electricity upon absorbing moisture. The overall energy harvested by the device is sufficient to power a light-emitting diode. This proof-of-concept demonstration illustrates the potential of battery-less wearables powered using human sweat.”
This prototype is certainly interesting and has obvious potential for improving human comfort, confidence, and possibly health. It remains to be seen whether commercialization of the technology will be feasible and whether researchers develop effective ways to recycle the product at the end of its useful life. Conventional electronics are already a waste generation challenge, and wearable technology is notoriously difficult to recycle and a potential contaminant in recycling streams. Further, the incorporation of cobalt chloride in this product could prove problematic and detrimental to sustainable design, as continues to be the case for most electronics. Cobalt mining operations have been supported by child labor, so truly sustainable designs will strive to use reclaimed cobalt from the recycling of existing products for the preparation of cobalt compounds for the manufacture of new devices. It could be the case that innovations such as this one might reduce reliance on batteries, and thus reduce overall demand for cobalt, but any cobalt in a product supply chain must be scrutinized. We can only hope that the same innovativeness that leads to prototypes such as this insole can inspire researchers to continuously improve the overall sustainability of product design and end-of-life management.
Xueping Zhang et al, Super-hygroscopic film for wearables with dual functions of expediting sweat evaporation and energy harvesting, Nano Energy (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.nanoen.2020.104873
“It’s not easy to make a wind turbine blade. Conventional blades require a lot of labor. They are a sandwich composed of fiberglass, sheets of balsa wood and a chemical called an epoxy thermoset resin. A heat oven is required to give blades the proper shape, strength, smoothness and flexibility to catch the wind and turn the turbine.
The new NREL blade uses most of these components, but bonds them together with a thermoplastic resin that can harden and set the blade’s shape at room temperature. It can also be reclaimed at the end of its life by heating it into a liquid resin that can then be reused to make new blades.
That minimizes the waste problem, which became more difficult in Europe after the European Union banned old blades from being dumped in landfills. The new resin is called Elium, and it’s made by Arkema Inc., a French company with offices in King of Prussia, Pa. Arkema is working with NREL to develop the recyclable blade.”
Testing has also suggested the new blade design could have a greater “damping effect,” meaning there would be reduced vibration in the wind during use, and thus, less of the noise nuisance which has been associated with wind turbines. This may also mean reduced stress on the turbine structure resulting in a longer product life.
While this is certainly a promising development, more research is needed before such blades become available for use. Experts at NREL say years of further testing may be required to assure the new blade design is capable of living up to the industry standard of enduring outdoor elements for about 30 years.
Food waste and electronic waste are two aspects of the waste stream that present a multitude of challenges for human society. Now a team of scientists led by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore has developed a way to use food waste–specifically orange peels–to recover precious metals from spent lithium-ion batteries for reuse in the creation of new batteries.
‘An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste and 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated globally each year.
Spent batteries are conventionally treated with extreme heat (over 500°C) to smelt valuable metals, which emits hazardous toxic gases. Alternative approaches that use strong acid solutions or weaker acid solutions with hydrogen peroxide to extract the metals are being explored, but they still produce secondary pollutants that pose health and safety risks, or rely on hydrogen peroxide which is hazardous and unstable.
Professor Madhavi Srinivasan, co-director of the NTU Singapore-CEA Alliance for Research in Circular Economy (NTU SCARCE) lab, said: “Current industrial recycling processes of e-waste are energy-intensive and emit harmful pollutants and liquid waste, pointing to an urgent need for eco-friendly methods as the amount of e-waste grows. Our team has demonstrated that it is possible to do so with biodegradable substances.”‘
Current industrial processes for recycling batteries involve shredding the batteries and crushing them into a powdery substance. That powdery substance is either smelted at temperatures above 500 degrees Celsius to separate metals or subjected to a chemical leaching technique using a mixture of acids and hydrogen peroxide plus heat. The newly developed process substitutes orange peels instead of the acids and hydrogen peroxide typically used. The researchers oven-dried orange peels, ground them to powder, and mixed them with citric acid, a weak acid found in citrus fruits.
‘Asst Prof Tay explained: “The key lies in the cellulose found in orange peel, which is converted into sugars under heat during the extraction process. These sugars enhance the recovery of metals from battery waste. Naturally-occurring antioxidants found in orange peel, such as flavonoids and phenolic acids, could have contributed to this enhancement as well.”
Importantly, solid residues generated from this process were found to be non-toxic, suggesting that this method is environmentally sound, he added.’
The researchers were further able to use metals recovered via this process to assemble new lithium-ion batteries which displayed a charge-capacity similar to commercially available batteries. The team is hoping to further optimize the batteries they can produce in this fashion and extend their “waste-to-resource” approach to other cellulose-rich fruit and vegetable waste and other lithium-ion battery types.
“Repurposing of Fruit Peel Waste as a Green Reductant for Recycling of Spent Lithium-Ion Batteries” by Zhuoran Wu, Tanto Soh, Jun Jie Chan, Shize Meng, Daniel Meyer, Madhavi Srinivasan and Chor Yong Tay, 9 July 2020, Environmental Science & Technology. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.0c02873
‘A typical recycling process converts large quantities of items made of a single material into more of the same. However, this approach isn’t feasible for old electronic devices, or “e-waste,” because they contain small amounts of many different materials that cannot be readily separated. Now, in ACS Omega, researchers report a selective, small-scale microrecycling strategy, which they use to convert old printed circuit boards and monitor components into a new type of strong metal coating…
Based on the properties of copper and silica compounds, Veena Sahajwalla and Rumana Hossain suspected that, after extracting them from e-waste, they could combine them to create a durable new hybrid material ideal for protecting metal surfaces.
To do so, the researchers first heated glass and plastic powder from old computer monitors to 2,732 F, generating silicon carbide nanowires. They then combined the nanowires with ground-up circuit boards, put the mix on a steel substrate then heated it up again. This time the thermal transformation temperature selected was 1,832 F, melting the copper to form a silicon-carbide enriched hybrid layer atop the steel. Microscope images revealed that, when struck with a nanoscale indenter, the hybrid layer remained firmly affixed to the steel, without cracking or chipping. It also increased the steel’s hardness by 125%. The team refers to this targeted, selective microrecycling process as “material microsurgery,” and say that it has the potential to transform e-waste into advanced new surface coatings without the use of expensive raw materials.’
Rumana Hossain, Veena Sahajwalla. Material Microsurgery: Selective Synthesis of Materials via High-Temperature Chemistry for Microrecycling of Electronic Waste. ACS Omega, 2020; 5 (28): 17062 DOI: 10.1021/acsomega.0c00485
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar power is the fastest-growing energy source in the U.S. and this growth will continue to rise. At the moment, only a few states have adopted solar PV end-of-life handling policy requirements. Therefore, a lot of modules that have reached their end-of-life will end up in landfills. Early failures, catastrophic events, and system upgrades will compound waste management issues of end-of-life PV modules. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency finds a substantial increase in solar modules reaching their end-of-life in the 2020s and 2030s, with forecasts of 60 to 78 million cumulative tons of modules entering the waste streams globally by 2050.
Research by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) finds the design life of a PV module to be around 30 years. This does not account for early-loss failures which can occur through a range of factors including damages during the manufacturing process and transit, improper handling, and exposure to severe weather events. IRENA reports that most PV module waste today is due to early-loss scenarios and is estimated to contribute to more than 80% of the recycling market. The dramatic decline in PV equipment costs has also given system owners’ opportunities to reevaluate the overall efficiency of systems, and many utility-scale and commercial and industrial plant owners are now “repowering” systems across the U.S. This is done by replacing modules to increase the system’s overall performance and power ratings and extending the life of the system. NREL research has found that these lifetime estimations can happen as early as 10 years after the initial installation.
Governments and states are now beginning to see the overall value in end-of-life PV requirements for a circular economy. In 2012 the European Union’s Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment established PV module disposal and recycling guidelines. Extended-producer-responsibility principles are is at its core, holding the producers responsible for the recycling and treatment of end-of-life PV modules. Currently, there are no national U.S. requirements for end-of-life PV modules, however, ideas for national and state recycling programs have been evaluated. This seminar will include a panel discussion on barriers, policies, and sustainable opportunities for end-of-life PV modules.
Amanda Cotton is the e-waste coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Cotton has been involved with toxicity reduction, pollution prevention and product stewardship at the agency for 12 years.
Nancy Gillis is the CEO of the Green Electronics Council (GEC), a mission-driven non-profit that seeks to achieve a world of only sustainable ICT. GEC manages EPEAT, the leading global ecolabel for ICT and other electronic products. Before joining GEC, Nancy served as the Global Lead for Resilient and Responsible Supply Chains at Ernst & Young (EY). Prior to that, she served in the US Federal Government as the Director of the Federal Supply Chain Office at the General Services Administration (GSA), the public procurement agency for the US government. At GSA, Nancy was responsible for the inclusion of sustainability criteria in approximately $45B of procurements. Nancy received her graduate degree in Information Technology from Georgetown University.
Garvin Heath is a Senior Scientist and leader of sustainability analysis at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. For the last 8 years he has led the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Task 12 (Sustainability) where the US has gained valuable insight and lessons from countries with more experience in recycling and the circular economy of PV modules. He led development of a PV recycling technology R&D Roadmap for the US Department of Energy, helped develop a new voluntary Sustainability Leadership Standard for PV Module manufacturing (including end of life management), and has been advising several U.S. states considering voluntary and regulatory responses to PV end of life management challenges.
In June, the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) released The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, which examined the quantities, flows, and circular economy potential of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) across the planet. The report also includes national and regional analysis on
e-waste quantities and legislative instruments.
GESP was founded in 2017 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations University (UNU), and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). Its objectives are to monitor developments of e-waste over time, and help countries to produce e-waste statistics, which in turn will inform policymakers, industries, academia, media, and the general public by enhancing the understanding and interpretation of global e-waste data and its relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
According to the report, in 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons (Mt, or Megatoone; see https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Glossary:Megatonne_(Mt) and http://www.onlineconversion.com/faq_09.htm for explanations on units) of e-waste. This is an average of 7.3 kg (a little over 16 lbs) per capita, and represents a 21% increase in generation within 5 years. Further, the global generation of e-waste grew by 9.2 Mt since 2014 and is projected to grow to 74.7 Mt by 2030–this means the amount of e-waste generated will almost double in only 16 years. Just 17.4% of the e-waste generated in 2019 was officially recycled, through formal recycling programs.
Additional findings include:
“The fate of 82.6% (44.3 Mt) of e-waste generated in 2019 is uncertain, and its whereabouts and the environmental impact varies across the different regions…In middle- and low-income countries… e-waste is managed mostly by the informal sector.”
“Since 2014, the number of countries that have adopted a national e-waste policy, legislation, or regulation has increased from 61 to 78.”
“E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury, brominated flame retardants (BFR), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). The increasing levels of e-waste, low collection rates, and non-environmentally sound disposal and treatment of this waste stream pose significant risks to the environment and to human health. A total of 50 t of mercury and 71 kt of BFR plastics are found in globally undocumented flows of e-waste annually, which is largely released into the environment and impacts the health of the exposed workers.”
“Improper management of e-waste also contributes to global warming.” (Note that outside the US, the term “e-waste” or “WEEE” includes electrical equipment, such as air conditioners and refrigerators, which contain refrigerants that are greenhouse gases, whereas in the US, “e-waste” tends to refer to computers and peripherals, cell phones, printers, televisions, and similar electronics.)
“The value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately $57 billion USD.”
The authors state, “In summary, it is essential to substantially increase the officially documented 17.4% global e-waste collection and recycling rate, especially in view of the rapid growth of this waste stream, which is already projected to reach 74.7 Mt by 2030, combined with increasing recovery of materials towards closed material loops and reducing the use of virgin materials.”
“Small electronics — like video cameras, electronic toys, toasters, and electric shavers — made up the biggest chunk of 2019’s e-waste (about 32 percent). The next largest piece of the pie (24 percent) was made up of large equipment like kitchen appliances and copy machines. This group includes discarded solar panels, which aren’t a huge problem yet but could pose issues as the relatively new technology gets older. Screens and monitors created about half as much trash as large equipment but still amounted to close to 7 million metric tons of e-waste in 2019. Small IT and telecommunications equipment like phones added up to about 5 million metric tons of trash.”
“The growing mounds of e-waste are only getting more complex and more toxic, according to Scott Cassel, who founded the nonprofit Product Stewardship Institute. ‘Electronic companies do a great job of designing for pleasure and efficiency, but the rapid change in consumer demand also means that they’re designing for obsolescence. So today’s newest, coolest product becomes tomorrow’s junk,’ Cassel says.”
An international team of researchers, lead by Yeongran Hong of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, have demonstrated that a type of organic compound called a porphyrin could be used to retrieve precious metals, such as gold, from electronic waste in an effective, simple, and relatively inexpensive manner. The researchers used porphyrins to create a sorbent–a type of material that can collect molecules of another substance through adsorption, absorption or ion exhance–called COP-180. This compound remains stable in the acidic solutions which are used to remove metals from circuit boards and video screens.
From an article by Bob Yirka on Phys.org: “Testing the polymer showed it to be efficient at sorbing platinum and unexpectedly highly efficient at sorbing gold. A closer look at both showed that platinum dispersed evenly in an acid solution but gold clumped, allowing the sorbent to gather more of it than expected. Testing on real-world e-waste showed it was possible to collect 64 dollars’ worth of gold using only a gram of the sorbent, which costs five dollars to make. The researchers note that the sorbent can also be reused, making it even more economical.”
See Yeongran Hong et al. Precious metal recovery from electronic waste by a porous porphyrin polymer, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2000606117
In response to our changing realities, some companies are offering new mail-in programs to help residents and businesses responsibly manage their electronics at end-of-life while exercising caution and maintaining social distancing.
ERI has recently launched a mail-in recycling box program applicable to both residential and business electronic scrap. Like the Done with IT program, shipments are made via UPS, but unlike the Done with IT program, boxes are shipped flat to the consumer for use, and service is available for all 50 states. From the press release related to the program:
“ERI, the nation’s leading fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company currently provides the only NAID, R2, and e-Stewards certified secure-at-home (or office) box program in the United States. The program provides contactless, transparent delivery and pickup. All collected electronics are responsibly recycled and all data is securely destroyed. ERI’s home and business electronics recycling box program is available to individuals and businesses in all 50 states, at every zip code in the country…The boxes are shipped flat directly to the customer with an included return label. Customers can then assemble, fill, and return the boxes whenever convenient, with a simple call to ERI’s logistics partner, UPS.”
Of course, other mail-in options for certain types of electronic materials existed before the pandemic and continue. Call2Recycle and Battery Solutions, for example, both offer battery recycling programs. TerraCycle has locations available for its free electronics recycling program.
Consumers should check with their local recycling coordinators to determine whether electronics recycling solutions exist in their area. Mail-in programs such as these may be particularly helpful in areas where local options are limited or temporarily suspended.