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/
On Thursday, June 13, 2019, San Diego State University and the Green Electronics Council are co-sponsoring a full day event focused on sharing lessons learned, tools and best practices with a focus on leveraging procurement and technology towards sustainability. This seminar and workshop is applicable to members of college and university sustainability teams, procurement staff and those responsible for high-performing or “green” buildings on campus.
Besides allowing one to vicariously experience childish glee at watching the destruction of a smartphone by blender (which we of course should NOT try at home), the video provides a brief glimpse at the process of analyzing materials in a lab. Most importantly, it does an excellent job of helping viewers visualize the relative amounts of materials present in the phone, including coins for comparison to a familiarly-sized object (few of us know what 0.7 g or 10 mg really looks like without a reference object for comparison).
The video goes a step further by providing a visualization of the relative amounts of those component elements which would be present in a year’s worth of smartphone production, with a human figure and soccer pitch provided for reference. It’s a great example of how to effectively translate abstract statistics into accessible, meaningful information for the general public.
This would be excellent for presentation to students of all ages, as part of discussions related to industrial design, materials sourcing and impacts, why reclamation of materials from electronics is so important, etc.
Today on the Discard Studiesblog, Josh Lepawsky takes a look at the upstream impacts of electronics manufacturing in the United States–specifically by analyzing chemical releases from the industry over time, using the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data.
He writes: “These maps and their data point to three primary issues in pollution and discard studies: 1) waste and wasting occur not only at the end point of discarding consumer items, but at multiple points along the manufacturing and supply chain. A focus on end-of-life rather than the entire life cycle can cause an analytical near-sightedness when it comes to understanding a sector’s waste impacts. 2) One of the primary methodological issues with doing studies on externalities is that they are rarely counted– they are made invisible by their very externalization. Using publicly available data in new ways can start to open up the otherwise hard-to-see infrastructure of waste and wasting. 3) The data we can find, especially on industrial waste, is always partial and always tells a partial story. Here, it looks like overall pollution is decreasing over time, but really it is just being moved in space. Other places do not have the same kind of reporting of emissions, so the shifted pollution is rendered invisible once again.”
Check out the Discard Studies blog for more discourse on waste issues. From the site: “Discard Studies is designed as an online hub for scholars, activists, environmentalists, students, artists, planners, and others who are asking questions about waste, not just as an ecological problem, but as a process, category, mentality, judgment, an infrastructural and economic challenge, and as a site for producing power as well as struggles against power structures.”
You can also visit the web site of the Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA), which has been running Nova Scotia’s electronics recycling program for the past 10 years. EPRA will expand its program to recycle the new products. https://epra.ca/
According to the iFixit blog, “The coalition at Repair.org has been hard at work getting 15 states to introduce Right to Repair bills so far this year. But just like any grassroots movement, they need as much support as they can get—which is why we started a podcast to help spread the word! Every other week, we’ll be gathering special guests to update you on the latest Right to Repair news. You’ll hear stories about the fixers fighting for fair repair legislation, learn how to start a coalition in your state, and get tips for talking to your state representatives…Future episodes will focus on specific Right to Repair issues, so leave a note in the comments telling us what topics and guests you’d like us to feature! ”
The next broadcast is scheduled for Thursday, February 14th at 11 AM PST (1 PM CST) on the iFixit YouTube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/iFixitYourself. If you participate in the live event, you’ll get the chance to ask the presenters your questions about repair and associated legislation. Again, the video will be recorded for later viewing on YouTube and the audio will be shared on their social accounts the following day.
“Around 7% of the world’s gold is inside e-scrap, of which less than one-third is currently salvaged, according to project leader Professor Jason Love. One tonne of gold ore contains around up to 5 grams of pure gold. However, a tonne of discarded mobile phones easily holds 300 grams of the valuable metal, Love says. The chemical reagent pioneered by in Edinburgh effectively recovers ‘a very high purity of gold’ from various types of discarded electronics. First, the researchers place the printed circuit boards in a mild acid to dissolve metallic parts. An oily liquid containing the new reagent is then added, which allows gold to be extracted selectively from the complex mixture of metals found inside electronics. Professor Love explains that, normally, one molecule of reagent binds directly to a metal molecule. The innovative compound uses a different type of chemistry and can bind to clusters of gold molecules instead of just one. ‘This means you can use a lot less of it to recover the same amount of gold,’ he says.”
The researchers hope to find ways to recover other metals, including valuable (e.g. palladium, platinum, and neodymium), common (e.g. copper and tin), and toxic (e.g. lead and cadmium) metals. Similarly, they are interested in exploring chemical means to more effectively recover plastics from electronic scrap.
The Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), is a project of the nonprofit organization As You Sow, dedicated to ending human rights abuses and forced labor associated with the raw materials found in consumer products. On October 18, 2018, RSN released its Mining the Disclosures 2018: An Investor Guide to Conflict Minerals Reporting in Year Five report, which “analyzes 206 companies’ supply chain due diligence efforts regarding conflict minerals, including tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, or 3TG. In the fifth consecutive year of analyzing companies’ conflict minerals compliance and reporting, the report shows that a large number of the companies’ scores stayed flat or decreased.”
According to RSN, “The technology sector outperformed all others, while laggard industries included integrated oil & gas, steel, business services, and building materials. Innovative companies showed constant improvements, including increased participation in on-the-ground initiatives, proactive risk assessments, and comprehensive risk mitigation measures. However, compared to 2017, a majority of companies’ scores that reflect alignment with the OECD’S Conflict Minerals Guidance declined. The results show a global lack of desire to improve due diligence practices over the last few years.”
“Conflict minerals” include tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (aka 3TG). They are so called because these minerals are often sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, and in recent years, unfortunately also one of the most war-torn. Militant groups controlling mines have used violence, including murder, torture, rape and other sexual violence, forced labor and use of child soldiers, in their control of the populace to further their profit from sale of these minerals and their war efforts. Conflict minerals are used in a wide variety of electronic devices, and are also found in a variety of other products, including jewelry, dental products, tools, biocides, ammunition, medical devices, and others. For more information, see https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/conflict-minerals/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_resource#Conflict_minerals.
Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Action, passed in 2010 and implemented starting in 2012 by the Securities and Exchange Commission, requires that all companies publicly traded in the the US with products containing any of the four conflict minerals report on the source of the minerals in their supply chain. This required transparency has not eliminated human rights issues associated with conflict mineral sourcing, but it has demonstrably improved conditions for Congolese miners. Before passage of the law, the UN reported that nearly every mine in Congo was controlled by armed groups. As of 2016, the independent research institute, International Peace Information Service (IPIS) found that 79% of “3T” miners surveyed in eastern Congo were working in mines where no armed group involvement had been reported. (See https://enoughproject.org/special-topics/progress-and-challenges-conflict-minerals-facts-dodd-frank-1502).
RSN cites the Trump administration’s “contempt for regulations” and threats made last year to “suspend Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act” as part of the reason for the decline in corporate due diligence related to conflict minerals sourcing. “The disregard of corporate responsibility for conflict minerals during the Trump administration is concerning,” said Raphaël Deberdt, author of the Mining the Disclosures 2018 report. “The increasing neglect of the conflict minerals legislation from some companies over the past few years has been a source of human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And these abuses extend beyond the 3TG sphere.”
According the RSN press release: ‘Companies involved in mineral supply chains — from mines to retailers — now face additional challenges that must be integrated into corporate risk mitigation frameworks. The increasing importance of cobalt, lithium, and nickel in the automotive and technology sectors should trigger red flags in compliance departments in a broader risk context, including environmental degradation, organizational health and safety, human rights, and community impacts. Similarly, the upcoming EU regulation will necessitate increased due diligence from importers of 3TG, not only from the Congo region, but from all conflict-affected and high-risks areas. “The results of this year’s report demonstrate the need for an increase in regulatory enforcement and investor engagement that urge companies to undertake proactive due diligence efforts,” said Patricia Jurewicz, vice president of Responsible Sourcing Network. “These programs must continuously improve to address and mitigate the evolving material risks associated with conflict mineral supply chains.” ‘
RSN further asserted that “leading companies” such as Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Qualcomm, Ford, Royal Philips, and HP “prove that taking a due diligence approach to reduce harmful impacts on the communities producing the raw materials in our electronics is an achievable and beneficial business model.”
With so much positive potential, what could possibly be the downsides of 3D printing? While negative impacts might not be immediately obvious, sustainability advocates must always consider all potential impacts of a technology, product, or action, both positive and negative. The following resources are a good start for considering the often overlooked potential negative impacts of 3D printing.
The Health Effects of 3D Printing. This October 2016 article from American Libraries Magazine discusses exposure to ultrafine particles (UFPs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and the risks of bacterial growth in small fissures found within 3D printed objects. The authors provide some very basic tips for reducing risks to patrons and library staff members.
3-D printing: A Boon or Bane? Though a bit dated, this article by Robert Olson, a senior fellow at the Institute for Alternative Futures in Alexandria, VA, in the November/December 2013 issue of the Environmental Forum (the policy journal of the Environmental Law Institute) does a good job of outlining some of the issues that need to be considered when assessing the impacts or appropriateness of this technology. “How efficient are these technologies in the use of materials and energy? What materials are used and what are the worker exposure and environmental impacts? Does the design of printed objects reduce end-of-life options? Does more localized production reduce the carbon footprint? And will simplicity and ubiquity cause us to overprint things, just as we do with paper?“
The dark side of 3D printing: 10 things to watch. This 2014 article by Lyndsey Gilpin for Tech Republic concisely outlines ten potential negative impacts, such as the reliance on plastics, including some that may not have occurred to you, such as IP and licensing issues, bioethics, and national security. Note the mention of 3D printed guns, which have been in the news a fair amount during 2018.
3-D printer emissions raise concerns and prompt controls. This March 26, 2018 article by Janet Pelley in Chemical & Engineering News focuses on potential negative health impacts of inhaling VOCs and plastic particles. “Although the government has set workplace standards for a few of the VOCs released by 3-D printers, these are for healthy working-age adults in industrial settings such as tire or plastic manufacturing plants: None of the compounds is regulated in homes or libraries where 3-D printers might be used by sensitive populations such as children. Furthermore, researchers don’t know the identity of most of the compounds emitted by printers. “Scientists know that particles and VOCs are bad for health, but they don’t have enough information to create a regulatory standard for 3-D printers,” says Marina E. Vance, an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. What’s more, data from early studies of 3-D printer emissions are difficult to use in developing standards because of variability in the test conditions, says Rodney J. Weber, an aerosol chemist at Georgia Institute of Technology. Two years ago, UL, an independent safety certification company, established an advisory board and began funding research projects to answer basic questions about the amounts and types of compounds in 3-D printer emissions, what levels are safe, and how to minimize exposures, says Marilyn S. Black, a vice president at UL. The company is working to create a consistent testing and evaluation method so that researchers will be able to compare data across different labs. ‘By this fall we will put out an ANSI [American National Standards Institute] standard for measuring particles and VOCs for everyone to use,” she says. See the UL Additive Manufacturing pages“, specifically the “library” section for their currently available safety publications.
The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, most commonly simply called EPEAT, is a product registry to help purchasers identify electronic devices with positive environmental attributes. Manufacturers and retailers can use the registry to highlight product offerings which meet criteria addressing materials selection, design for product longevity, reuse and recycling, energy conservation, end-of-life management and corporate performance. EPEAT was developed with a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is managed by the Green Electronics Council (GEC) .
The EPEAT registry has long included computers (including laptops and tablets) and displays, imaging equipment (e.g. printers, copiers, fax machines, scanners, multifunction devices, etc.), and televisions. Mobile phones were recently added, and servers are the latest product category addition.
The GEC is developing a new Environmental Benefits Calculator that measures the environmental and cost benefits of purchasing sustainable EPEAT-registered products. The new calculator will launch for the mobile phone category in September. The calculator will expand to include servers and the updated Computer and Display category by the end of the year.
Purchasers are invited to join GEC’s Patty Dillon, Acting Director of EPEAT Category Development, on September 19th for a live demonstration of the Mobile Phone Environmental Benefits Calculator. Learn how to use the calculator to quantify the sustainability benefits of purchasing EPEAT-registered IT products, as well as how to estimate savings resulting from extended use and recycling of those devices.
As electronics become more ubiquitous each day, the integration of smaller electronic components into ever more products continues, and renewable energy becomes an increasingly popular strategy for addressing climate change, the ability to store and supply power efficiently and safely is all the more important. So it’s no surprise that batteries have been a hot topic in the news for the past month or so. Let’s take a moment to consider some of the highlights of recent battery-related news.
We may as well start with the well-written piece by Geoffrey A. Fowler, the Washington Post’s technology columnist, published today (9/12/18): “The problem with recycling our old tech gadgets: They explode.” This is a good article about how design choices to make electronics thinner and more portable make the recycling of electronics more difficult and dangerous. Specifically because lithium-ion batteries are being incorporated into more products and smaller products, often without an easy–or any–way to remove those batteries. This isn’t just problematic for for extending the useful life of products. The trend makes the recycling of electronics increasingly risky while simultaneously making the economic feasibility of such efforts diminish. Recyclers need more time, special equipment, and training for proper handling, and they are at greater risk of damages caused by fires. As Fowler explains: “For all their benefits at making our devices slim, powerful and easy to recharge, lithium-ion batteries have some big costs. They contain Cobalt, often mined in inhumane circumstances in places like the Congo. And when crushed, punctured, ripped or dropped, lithium-ion batteries can produce what the industry euphemistically calls a “thermal event.” It happens because these batteries short circuit when the super-thin separator between their positive and negative parts gets breached. Remember Samsung’s exploding Note 7 smartphone? That was a lithium-ion thermal event.”
Fowler visits Cascade Asset Management, an electronics scrap processor in Madison, WI, to observe the process of removing a battery from an old iPad before the device can be sent through the shredder for recycling. My take away from this article: products need to be designed not only with sleek aesthetics and portability in mind, but also the ability to easily and safely upgrade, repair, and maintain them during their useful life and then to easily and safely reclaim parts and component materials when they have reached their end of useful life. Fowler concludes “So as a gadget reviewer, let me say this clearly to the tech industry: Give up your thin obsession. We’ll happily take electronics with a little extra junk in the trunk if it means we can easily replace batteries to make them last longer – and feel more confident they won’t end up igniting a recycling inferno.” Do agree with his sentiment? Consider voicing that opinion to the manufacturers of your favorite devices, and if you’re an industrial design student, heed well the lessons you can learn from this article.
As long as we’re on the subject of “thermal events,” consider this interesting research highlighted in this article provided by the American Chemical Society : “These lithium-ion batteries can’t catch fire because they harden on impact.” ‘Lithium-ion batteries commonly used in consumer electronics are notorious for bursting into flame when damaged or improperly packaged. These incidents occasionally have grave consequences, including burns, house fires and at least one plane crash. Inspired by the weird behavior of some liquids that solidify on impact, researchers have developed a practical and inexpensive way to help prevent these fires. They will present their results today at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). “In a lithium-ion battery, a thin piece of plastic separates the two electrodes,” Gabriel Veith, Ph.D., says. “If the battery is damaged and the plastic layer fails, the electrodes can come into contact and cause the battery’s liquid electrolyte to catch fire.” To make these batteries safer, some researchers instead use a nonflammable, solid electrolyte. But these solid-state batteries require significant retooling of the current production process, Veith says. As an alternative, his team mixes an additive into the conventional electrolyte to create an impact-resistant electrolyte. It solidifies when hit, preventing the electrodes from touching if the battery is damaged during a fall or crash. If the electrodes don’t touch each other, the battery doesn’t catch fire. Even better, incorporating the additive would require only minor adjustments to the conventional battery manufacturing process…In the future, Veith plans to enhance the system so the part of the battery that’s damaged in a crash would remain solid, while the rest of the battery would go on working. The team is initially aiming for applications such as drone batteries, but they would eventually like to enter the automotive market. They also plan to make a bigger version of the battery, which would be capable of stopping a bullet. That could benefit soldiers, who often carry 20 pounds of body armor and 20 pounds of batteries when they’re on a mission, Veith says. “The battery would function as their armor, and that would lighten the average soldier by about 20 pounds.”
Imagine the day when lithium-ion batteries might be an asset for safety instead of a liability!
Writing for the HOBI International blog, Alicia Cotton recently wrote that “Innovation is making lithium-ion batteries increasingly harder to recycle.” The point of her post was that as demand for lithium-ion batteries increase, manufacturers will look to produce them with cheaper materials, adversely impacting the economic incentives for recycling these batteries. ‘According to the Royal Chemistry Society, the cost of cobalt, which is heavily used as a cathode material in all batteries, jumped from $32,500 to $81,000 in just over a year. In response, battery manufacturers have opted to redesign batteries to minimize cobalt. In May, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company had all but eliminated cobalt from batteries it uses in automobile and stationary batteries. However, doing so will help keep batteries cheap — as in too cheap to recycle. Without valuable contents recyclers have little incentive to capture used batteries, Kaun said.‘ This is an interesting example of trade-offs and how considerations for sustainability are rarely simple. The use of cobalt in batteries is problematic not just due to the economic cost of the material, but also due to human rights issues related to cobalt sourcing. However, this article points out that as higher value materials are phased out of design, there is a negative impact on the economics of recycling. More work is clearly needed to create recycling incentives for lithium-ion batteries moving forward, as well as developing batteries which depend less on cobalt, and improving the sustainability of the cobalt supply chain.
In another recent post for the HOBI International blog, Cotton writes that a “New Material will Triple Storage Capacity of Lithium-Ion Batteries.” “Together in a joint effort, scientists from the University of Maryland (UMD), U.S. Army Research Lab and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) have been working hard to improve the storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries. Turns out, the use of extra cobalt was the answer. The scientists believe they can triple the energy density of lithium-ion battery electrodes.” Well, that would make those batteries not only have higher storage capacity, but also create an incentive for recycling them–but then we’re looking at the issues surrounding cobalt sourcing again. What did I say about trade-offs and how sustainable solutions are rarely simple? Sigh.
And, while we’re on the subject of sustainable solutions coming in shades of grey, here’s an example of how context can be important. As someone who advocates for waste reduction, I often talk about the need for more durable, repairable, upgradable goods and a move away from disposability. I certainly like to encourage people to use rechargeable batteries instead of single-use ones where they can. But there are situations in which disposable goods might actually foster sustainability, and yes, this is even true for batteries. Another recent update from the American Chemical Society discussed “A paper battery powered by bacteria.” Consider remote areas of the world where access to electricity is a luxury, or situation in which a natural disaster or other emergency has occurred leaving an area without access to power. Think about medical devices that would be needed to help victims of a disaster, or just be part of everyday medical support in remote areas. Paper is desirable for biosensors due to its flexibility, portability, high surface area, and inexpensive nature. “Choi and his colleagues at the State University of New York, Binghamton made a paper battery by printing thin layers of metals and other materials onto a paper surface. Then, they placed freeze-dried “exoelectrogens” on the paper. Exoelectrogens are a special type of bacteria that can transfer electrons outside of their cells. The electrons, which are generated when the bacteria make energy for themselves, pass through the cell membrane. They can then make contact with external electrodes and power the battery. To activate the battery, the researchers added water or saliva. Within a couple of minutes, the liquid revived the bacteria, which produced enough electrons to power a light-emitting diode and a calculator…The paper battery, which can be used once and then thrown away, currently has a shelf-life of about four months. Choi is working on conditions to improve the survival and performance of the freeze-dried bacteria, enabling a longer shelf life.“In a related article by Jason Deign for Greentech Media, Choi noted that in these low-power, low-cost situations, the paper battery could be used and then biodegrade without special treatment. Further reporting on this innovation is available in the IEEE Spectrum.
Now that you’ve read about all these innovations and the need for further innovations, you may be thinking, “Can someone please just tell what a lithium-ion battery is, the basics of how they work, and why we use them if there are so many problematic issues?!?!” Don’t worry–a recent post by Arthur Shi on the iFixit blog provides a nice overview with some links to more in-depth explanations if you’re interested.