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.
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.
According to the report, over half the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and 20% of that is from artisanal mines where young children may be involved in unsafe practices exposing them to high levels of cobalt. From the Triple Pundit article linked to above, ‘“As with adult miners,” Amnesty International corroborated, “they were exposed to high levels of cobalt on a consistent basis, but did not even have gloves or face masks to wear.” In most cases, the authors pointed out, the financial gain of their work was nominal: “[The children reported] they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads, to earn between one and two dollars a day.”’
The full report may be downloaded from the Amnesty International web site in English, Chinese, or French (PDF Format; 88 pages). According to the site: “This report documents the hazardous conditions in which artisanal miners, including thousands of children, mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It goes on to trace how this cobalt is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices. Using basic hand tools, miners dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground, and accidents are common. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure to cobalt, adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment. This report is the first comprehensive account of how cobalt enters the supply chain of many of the world’s leading brands.”
You can also check out the Amnesty International video below:
Manuscripts are still being accepted for the special issue of the journal Challenges, entitled “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design.”
From the issue’s rationale:
“Electronics are at the heart of an economic system that has brought many out of poverty and enhanced quality of life. In Western society in particular, our livelihoods, health, safety, and well being are positively impacted by electronics. However, there is growing evidence that our disposal of electronics is causing irreparable damage to the planet and to human health, as well as fueling social conflict and violence.
While global demand for these modern gadgets is increasing, policy to handle the increased volumes of electronic waste has not kept pace. International policy governing safe transfer, disposal, reclamation, and reuse of electronic waste is nonexistent or woefully lacking. Where laws do exist about exporting and importing hazardous waste, they are routinely circumvented and enforcement is spotty at best. While European Union countries lead the way in responsible recycling of electronic and electrical devices under various EU directives, most industrialized nations do not have such policies. In the U.S., for example, most electronic waste is still discarded in landfills or ground up for scrap.
It is imperative that we consider how green design practices can address the growing electronic waste problem. This special issue is meant to do just that and spur discussions on how electronic products can become greener and more sustainable.”
If you are interested in submitting a paper for this special issue, please send a title and short abstract (about 100 words) to the Challenges Editorial Office at firstname.lastname@example.org, indicating the special issue for which it is to be considered. If the proposal is considered appropriate for the issue, you will be asked to submit a full paper. Complete instructions for authors and an online submission form for the completed manuscripts are available on the Challenges web site at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/challenges/special_issues/electronic-waste#info. The deadline for manuscript submissions is December 31, 2015. Questions may be addressed to co-guest editor Joy Scrogum.
It has been another interesting month for sustainable electronics. Here are a few highlights:
NIOSH highlights occupational health & safety risks for US electronics recyclers
On July 24, Resource Recycling announced the release of a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report that I have long awaited, having heard about the study at a conference several months ago. The report details results from analyzing air, surface, and employee blood samples from an undisclosed US electronic scrap recycling facility. The study also entailed interviews with employees to determine possible improvements for health and safety procedures. From the report: “The Health Hazard Evaluation Program received a request from a health and safety manager at an electronic scrap recycling facility…We evaluated air, surfaces, blood, and urine for metals…We also evaluated noise exposures. We found overexposures to lead, cadmium, and noise. Some employees had blood lead levels above 10 ug/dl. We provided recommendations to prevent these exposures to employees, and to prevent unintentionally taking metals home to family members.” Lead was detected on clothing and skin of workers, and on various surfaces throughout the facility.
We often hear about risks associated with informal recycling operations in other countries in the media, but seldom, if ever, hear about risks to US workers in formal recycling operations. We also tend to take for granted that people know about the dangers of exposure to lead because of lead-based paint and the outreach associated with that—it’s really stunning to read this report and realize how big an issue the lead associated with electronics reclamation can be. We can’t assume that recycling workers are properly trained on the hazards and how to avoid contamination. A 13-point list of recommendations was drawn up to respond to NIOSH’s concerns, including updating the ventilation system, segregating CRT glass breaking areas and a remodeling of facility work stations and procedures to ensure worker safety. All facilities that handle electronic waste would do well to review this list and consider their own situations.
E-waste exports and counterfeit electronics
On July 15th, the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling issued a press release stating that defense and technology experts expressed support for the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, or RERA (HR 2791, S.2090) at a recent Congressional briefing. Their reason? The export of non-functioning or untested electronics is allegedly providing feedstock for counterfeiters in countries like China. Scrap microchips may be washed and relabeled to look new by such counterfeiting operations. These counterfeit electronics could present threats to safety and security, if they were to be used like new components in equipment and fail. The example given in the press release is that of an airplane–you wouldn’t want an older, component, sold as if it were new, to fail mid-flight. Panelists argued that RERA would combat the problem of counterfeit electronics in defense supply chains by requiring the domestic recycling of nonworking, non-tested e-waste. Plus, it could create US jobs.
Global e-waste generation and export
Finally, a new report published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, entitled Tracking the Global Generation and Exports of e-Waste. Do Existing Estimates Add up? shows that nearly a quarter of e-waste discarded in developing countries flows into just seven developing countries in 2005, with potential risks to environmental and human health in those countries. Those developing countries included China, India and five West African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Liberia. Researcher Knut Breivik and colleagues analyzed data from many studies to determine more reliable estimates than previously reported, highly variable estimates for global e-waste flows.