In late March 2019, the European Recycling Platform (ERP) achieved a significant milestone, having recycled over 1 million tonnes (i.e. metric tons) of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) in the UK. According to ERP UK, this is the equivalent of preventing the release of 1,400 tonnes of ozone depleting substances. This also represents a savings of 4 billion kWh of primary energy.
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.”
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.
From the May 1, 2018 edition of Science Daily: “Engineered nanomaterials hold great promise for medicine, electronics, water treatment, and other fields. But when the materials are designed without critical information about environmental impacts at the start of the process, their long-term effects could undermine those advances. A team of researchers hopes to change that.
In a study published in Nature Nanotechnology, Yale researchers outline a strategy to give materials designers the tools they need to make the necessary assessments efficiently and at the beginning of the design process. Engineers traditionally focus on the function and cost of their products. Without the information to consider long-term environmental impacts, though, it is difficult to predict adverse effects. That lack of information means that unintended consequences often go unnoticed until long after the product has been commercialized. This can lead to hastily replacing the material with another that proves to have equally bad, or even worse, effects. Having materials property information at the start of the design process could change that pattern. “As a researcher, if I have limited resources for research and development, I don’t want to spend it on something that’s not going to be viable due to its effects on human health,” said Julie Zimmerman, professor of chemical & environmental engineering and co-senior author of the study. “I want to know now, before I develop that product.” To that end, the researchers have developed a database that serves as a screening tool for environmentally sustainable material selection. It’s a chart that lists nanomaterials and assesses each for properties such as size, shape, and such performance characteristics as toxicity and antimicrobial activity. Mark Falinski, a PhD student and lead author of the study, said this information would allow researchers to weigh the different effects of the material before actually developing it.”
The database created by the research team also allows other researchers to enter information to improve the material selection framework. It includes engineered nanomaterials and conventional alternatives with human health and environmental metrics for all materials.
The research team includes scientists affiliated with Yale University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, City University of Hong Kong, and the University of Pittsburgh.
Read the referenced article in Nature Nanotechnology at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41565-018-0120-4. [Mark M. Falinski, Desiree L. Plata, Shauhrat S. Chopra, Thomas L. Theis, Leanne M. Gilbertson, Julie B. Zimmerman. A framework for sustainable nanomaterial selection and design based on performance, hazard, and economic considerations. Nature Nanotechnology, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41565-018-0120-4]
To learn more about the potential environmental and health impacts of nanotechnology, see the following:
Watch for Nanotechnology Environmental Health and Safety: Risks, Regulation, and Management, Third Edition, edited by Matthew Hull and Diana Bowman, due out in August 2018. See https://www.elsevier.com/books/nanotechnology-environmental-health-and-safety/hull/978-0-12-813588-4. This book “includes real-world case studies, wherever practical, to illustrate specific issues and scenarios encountered by stakeholders positioned on the frontlines of nanotechnology-enabled industries. Each case study will appeal and resonate with laboratory scientists, business leaders, regulators, service providers and postgraduate researchers.”
As Paben reports, researchers from Sandia National Laboratories have developed a method to use ultrasonic waves, coupled with surfactants, to cheaply and efficiently recover gold from scrap electronics. Their experiments involved application of two different surfactants to the surface of a cell phone SIM card, which was then submerged in water. Ultrasonic waves were applied, which imploded micro-bubbles on the SIM card’s surface. Upon collapse of these micro-bubbles, micro-jets ejected gold nanoparticles from the card’s surface, and the nanoparticles were captured and stabilized by the surfactants.
On November 15, 2017, Sustainable Brands reported that Amnesty International had released a new report revealing that tech industry giants such as Microsoft, Lenovo, Renault and Vodafone aren’t doing enough to keep child labor out of cobalt battery supply chains in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and China. “The findings come almost two years after Amnesty exposed a link between batteries used in their products and child labor. Time to Recharge ranks industry leaders, including Apple, Samsung SDI, Dell, Microsoft, BMW, Renault, Vodafone and Tesla according to improvements to their cobalt-sourcing practices since January 2016. The 108-page report revealed that only a handful of companies made progress, with many failing to take even basic steps, such as investigating supply links in the DRC. The report’s publication is timely, arriving just months after the UK government announced plans to ban new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040, which would ultimately lead to higher demand for cobalt batteries. This last point is particularly problematic as recent reports have revealed that cobalt resources are on the decline, despite demand growth predicted at 500 percent.”
The next free electronics recycling collection event for participating communities in Champaign County, IL is scheduled for October 14, 2017. The collection will take place from 8 AM to noon at Parkland College (2400 W. Bradley Ave., Champaign). Use the Duncan Road entrance and follow the signs.
There is a 10 item limit for participating residents, and a 2 TV limit. All sizes, types, and models of televisions are accepted. This is of particular significance, because although there are multiple businesses that do accept various types of electronics for recycling year-round, there is currently no place in Champaign County to recycle older, bulkier cathode ray tube (CRT) tvs. (See the Champaign County Electronics Recycling Guide for information on businesses that accept electronics for recycling, including items accepted and contact information).
Participating communities include: Bondville, Broadlands, Champaign, Gifford, Homer, Ivesdale, Ludlow,
Mahomet, Ogden, Rantoul, Royal, Sadorus, Savoy, St. Joseph, Thomasboro, Urbana, and Unincorporated County. Due to the popularity of these collection events, residents must register at www.ecycle.simplybook.me. Online registration opens on Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 8 AM.
On Tuesday, August 22, the Illini Gadget Garage will be hosting a screening of the documentary Death by Design at the Champaign Public Library. Doors will open at 6:30 PM and the film will begin at 7:00. The film duration is 73 minutes.
The Illini Gadget Garage is a repair center that helps consumers with “do-it-together” troubleshooting and repair of minor damage and performance issues of electronics and small appliances. The project promotes repair as a means to keep products in service and out of the waste stream. The Illini Gadget Garage is coordinated by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.
Death by Design explores the environmental and human costs of electronics, particularly considering their impacts in the design and manufacture stages, bearing in mind that many electronic devices are not built to be durable products that we use for many years. Cell phones, for example, are items that consumers change frequently, sometimes using for less than 2 years before replacing with a new model. When we analyze the effort put into, and potential negative impacts of, obtaining materials for devices through efforts like mining, the exposure to potentially harmful substances endured by laborers in manufacturing plants, and the environmental degradation and human health risks associated with informal electronics recycling practices in various parts of the word, the idea that we might see these pieces of technology as “disposable” in any way becomes particularly poignant. For more information on the film, including reviews, see http://deathbydesignfilm.com/about/ and http://bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/dbd.html. You can also check out the trailer at the end of this post.
A team of chemists from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, have developed a way to process metals without toxic solvents and reagents. Their innovation could help reduce negative environmental impacts of metal extraction from raw materials and electronic scrap.
As reported by McGill, “The system, which also consumes far less energy than conventional techniques, could greatly shrink the environmental impact of producing metals from raw materials or from post-consumer electronics…In an article published recently in Science Advances, the researchers outline an approach that uses organic molecules, instead of chlorine and hydrochloric acid, to help purify germanium, a metal used widely in electronic devices. Laboratory experiments by the researchers have shown that the same technique can be used with other metals, including zinc, copper, manganese and cobalt.”
The development is an interesting example of biomimicry. Germanium is a semiconductor not found in substantial quantities in any one type of ore, so a series of processes are used to reduce mined materials with small quantities of the metal to a mixture of germanium and zinc. Isolation of germanium from the zinc in this resulting mixture involves what one of the researchers called “nasty processes.” For an alternative less dependent upon toxic materials and energy use, the researchers found inspiration in melanin, the pigment molecule present in skin, hair, and irises of humans and other animals. Besides contribution to coloration, melanin can bind to metals. The researchers synthesized a molecule that mimics some of melanin’s metal-binding qualities. Using it they were able to isolate germanium from zinc at room temperature, without solvents.
As the McGill article states, “The next step in developing the technology will be to show that it can be deployed economically on industrial scales, for a range of metals.”
To learn more about germanium and its applications (including fiber-optics, infrared optics, solar electric applications, and LEDs), see the Wikipedia article on germanium at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanium.