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.
Launched with seed funding from the UI Student Sustainability Commitee (SSC) and supported by donations from corporations, organizations and individuals, the Illini Gadget Garage is a collaborative repair center for electronic devices and small appliances, that works to:
extend the useful life of products, and thus conserve the natural and human resources invested in their manufacture;
provide experiential learning related to STEM and sustainability for students and community members; and
empower people to see repair as a viable option for addressing minor damage and performance issues.
“Collaborative repair” means that Illini Gadget Garage staff and volunteers will guide you through the process of troubleshooting and repairing your devices yourself rather than doing it for you. It’s not “do it for you” but it’s also not entirely “do it yourself”–it’s more of a “do it together” approach meant to make learning about and working on electronics less intimidating. Since its launch the Illini Gadget Garage project has been coordinated by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) as part of its sustainable electronics and zero waste efforts.
The Illini Gadget Garage tracks the weight of devices brought in for assistance, as well as the weight of “special materials” (e.g. single use and rechargeable batteries plus CDs and their cases) it collects and ships for recycling. These statistics were recently updated to include figures through July 2018. See the summary of these figures at https://drive.google.com/file/d/11XV_2jO3KNf7437oQ3IlXoc4HtIjGNZ_/view.
As of July 2018, the project’s total for pounds of materials diverted from the waste stream through repair assistance or collection for recycling is 740.88 lbs!
Join the Illini Gadget Garage at the Champaign Public Library (Foundation meeting room, 2nd floor) this Saturday, June 9th from 1:30-3:30 PM to learn how to bring new life into old electronics just with a bit of cleaning and TLC. A short presentation will demonstrate some of the simple ways that cleaning your devices can keep them functioning well and in use longer. After the presentation, there will be a workshop session where you can try out some of your newly learned cleaning processes on devices that you bring in. The Illini Gadget Garage staff will provide some useful household cleaning products to help scrub up those dingy 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.
In a previous post, we discussed how researchers at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed an energy-efficient, non-toxic, nondestructive chemical process to recover polymers from the complex plastic blends found in items like cellphone cases.
But that’s not the only exciting news this Earth Month related to innovations in reclaiming materials from electronic scrap (commonly referred to as “e-waste”). In a GreenBiz article dated 4/18/18, Heather Clancy highlights an electrochemical process developed by Canadian venture EnviroLeach Technologies, which is similar to the conventional method of leaching gold and other metals out of ores, concentrates and tailings. The difference is that “instead of using cyanide, the patent-pending formula uses five non-toxic, FDA-approved ingredients that are combined with water at ambient temperatures.’The process does not require pressure, elevated temperatures, complex process circuits, intensive gas monitoring or costly detoxification systems,’ explained EnviroLeach on its website.” Read the full story on the GreenBiz web site. You can also check out the EnviroLeach web site for further information. This development is particularly encouraging considering a recent article from Environmental Leader reporting that n a study by researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing and Macquarie University in Australia, which suggests extracting metals from e-waste costs 13 times less than mining ore. Perhaps the new process will make the economic benefit even more striking, while minimizing environmental impacts.
Elsewhere in Canada, researchers at the University of British Columbia “have perfected a process to efficiently separate fibreglass and resin – two of the most commonly discarded parts of a cellphone – bringing them closer to their goal of a zero-waste cellphone.” As UBC News reports, “Most e-waste recycling firms focus on recovering useful metals like gold, silver, copper and palladium, which can be used to manufacture other products. But nonmetal parts like fibreglass and resins, which make up the bulk of cellphones’ printed circuit boards, are generally discarded because they’re less valuable and more difficult to process. They’re either fed to incinerators or become landfill, where they can leach hazardous chemicals into groundwater, soil and air.” But UBC mining engineering professor Maria Holuszko, along with PhD student Amit Kumar, has developed a process using gravity separation “and other simple phycial techniques to process cellphone fibreglass and resins in an environmentally neutral fashion.” The next step in pursuing this innovation is developing a large-scale commercial model of the process with their industrial partner and recycling company Ronin8. Read the full UBC article on the UBC News web site.
Read more at https://ifixit.org/recycling on why electronics recycling, though of course important, should not be considered the answer to the problem of ever-growing amounts of e-waste, due to the difficulty in reclaiming materials (eased slowly by new innovations like the ones described above) and energy use. While these developments in electronic scrap recycling are heartening, it’s important to remember to keep your electronics in service as long as possible through repair and upgrades, and when you no longer want or need a functioning device, sell or donate it so someone else can use it. Recycling should only come at the ultimate end of a device’s useful life.
Mixed-plastic electronics waste could be a valuable source of reusable polymers, a new study led by Illinois Sustainability Technology Center (ISTC) scientists suggests. The team’s findings, published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, are the first to demonstrate a nontoxic, nondestructive and energy-efficient chemical solvent process to recover polymers from the complex plastic blends found in items like like cellphone cases.
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.