Sustainability in the eyes of a recent graduate

Note: This post was written by SEI staff, Aida Sefic Williams.

SEI welcomes new staff member Aida Williams. In this post, Aida talks about her training as an engineer, how the concept of sustainability was dealt with in her experience as a student, and ideas for how engineering programs could foster the type of thinking needed to approach sustainability issues.

Sustainability is a term used often in today’s technical professions, and it is most certainly a buzz word heard around college campuses. I am a recent graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology, shortly referred to as Georgia Tech. There, I majored in mechanical engineering, where I received a good education at a top-notch school. But how much did this education prepare me for my current line of work dealing with sustainability and e-waste?
Continue reading “Sustainability in the eyes of a recent graduate”

Call For Papers–Electronics & Sustainability: Design for Energy & the Environment

The Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI), hosted by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a unit of the Institute of Natural Resources Sustainability on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a consortium dedicated to the development and implementation of a more sustainable system for designing, producing, remanufacturing, and recycling electronic devices. Members of the consortium include academia, non-profit organizations, government agencies, manufacturers, designers, refurbishers, and recyclers. Specific elements of the SEI include programs for research, education, data management, and technical assistance. SEI conducts collaborative research; facilitates networking and information exchange among participants; promotes technology diffusion via demonstration projects; and provides forums for the discussion of policy and legislation.

Americans own nearly three billion electronic products and continually purchase new ones to replace those deemed “obsolete,” even though about two-thirds of the devices are still in working order. To address this burgeoning e-waste problem, SEI will hold the Electronics & Sustainability: Design for Energy & the Environment symposium on February 23 – 24, 2010 at the I Hotel on the University of Illinois campus. Topics to be addressed will include environmental toxicology, life cycle analysis, product design, existing and proposed policy (local, state, national, and international), and more. Designers; electrical engineers; chemists; materials scientists; electronics manufacturers, recyclers, refurbishers, and remanufacturers; government representatives and policy makers; pollution prevention technical assistance providers; relevant non-profit organizations; and others are invited to take part in this symposium.

SEI invites industry and academic practitioners to submit abstracts of their recent research, projects, and design thinking for presentation, publications, or both. Proposals can be made for symposium participation in one or more of the following categories: a paper, presentation, panel discussion, or poster display.

For more information about the symposium and/or to access the call for papers, visit: www.sustainelectronics.illinois.edu or contact Wayne Duke, Conference Coordinator, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, One Hazelwood Drive, Champaign, Illinois 61820-7465, 217-333-5793, fax: 217-333-8944.

For more information about the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI), contact Dr. Tim Lindsey, Associate Director, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, One Hazelwood Drive, Champaign, Illinois 61820-7465, 217-333-8955, fax: 217-333-8944.

Teaching a Better Way to Design: An Interview with William Bullock

bullockNote: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

William Bullock is the Director of the Design for Energy and Environment Laboratory (DEE Lab,) an Affiliated Faculty Member for the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC,) and he has been my professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for the past two years. I sat down with him recently to get an experienced designer’s perspective on e-waste.  After all, designers are a vital part of the creation of e-waste; they can have a lot to do with the perpetuation or prevention of waste just by the decisions they make early on in the manufacturing stage.

Recently, I have noticed that most designers came to an unspoken consensus about design, it can not be about simply making more things; resources are limited, waste is ever increasing and our environment is suffering.  Sustainability is no longer just a good idea, it is a necessity.  This change came in the middle of William’s career and instead of reluctantly complying like some of his colleagues did, he embraced the idea of socially conscious design wholeheartedly.

William acknowledges that industrial design can be part of the problem.  Industrial designers create attractive newer looking products in an effort to stimulate sales.  This can encourage consumers to unnecessarily throw away products in favor of buying newer looking, often more “aesthetically pleasing” ones.  William also believes that we have the capability, as designers, to change that. William said, “We need to not only to deal with waste but also figure out how to reuse, recycle, design things so that they can be easily upgraded instead of thrown away all together.” He wondered if it is possible to find a universal aesthetic so that objects do not get dated as easily.

The positive side to designing superfluous products is that it sustains our economy. I asked William if he thinks it has to be one or the other; environmental concerns over economical ones.   He admitted that  is a challenge. “We are gluttonous” William explained, “so we might not only have the problem of having people buy new, but how do we make it so that when the old things are thrown out they do not harm the environment?”

William McDonough, a designer that recently spoke at the University of Illinois, has a lot of ideas that address this problem. For instance, he proposed a pen that you can stomp into the ground when you are finished with it and it would have the right nutrients and seed impeded in the pen to make it grow into a flower.  Ideas like these that do not discourage consumption but are also great for the environment is a trend that needs to be further exploited.

Another solution that William Bullock is focused on is providing information to the public because he believes that people are more apt to the right thing once they have the right information.  That is why he is working hard to set up initiatives that teach all there is to know about sustainability in product design.

For more information on William’s educational efforts, see the description of the sustainability and e-waste issues course he taught on the SEI Current Projects page.  The course had a Sustainable E-Waste Design Competition associated with it.  I spoke about both in an earlier post.

How to Hold an E-Waste Collection Event:

Paul at collection eventNote: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

It is no secret that the climate is not in the best shape right now, to say the least; polar bears are almost endangered, CO2 levels are 35% higher than preindustrial times, and waste is collecting at ever increasing rates. If you’re not already helping, I’m sure you have wondered at least once how you can aid in mitigating this problem. Hosting an e-waste collection event might not be the first thing that pops into your head, but might I suggest that you consider it. E-waste events can be incredibly beneficial to the environment because they can help keep toxic chemicals from going where they are not supposed to and they can also help your neighbors get rid of some old stuff and maybe even some guilt from holding onto that old stuff.
There are a couple aspects to an e-waste collection event that you should consider to help ensure success. The first thing to do, and probably one of the most important aspects of the event, is making a connection with a credible recycling company. Things to look for in a good recycling company are that they first try to reuse as much equipment as possible before they scrap it. Also make sure they can ensure the absolute safety and protection of information in computers they receive. The recycler should be able to give you some sort of written confirmation saying that every hard drive received at the event will be wiped or taken apart in some way. It is important that you find out exactly what the recycler does with the equipment they receive, so ask questions. Even if the recycler has the equipment to disassemble the electronics on site, they probably still have to ship certain things away (like CRTs) so be sure to ask where that equipment goes. As I have mentioned in a previous post, certified “e-stewards” are companies that have committed to being responsible according to the “e-steward” criteria, so that could be a good place to start when you need a recycler, but there are also a number of other responsible recyclers not on that list.

As for the rest of the event, there are a few other things to consider. One is making sure that the police and town know what you are up to so that you can get their advice on traffic control and ask them what kind of a presence they wish to contribute. Another is picking a location. Of course you want to have something central and easy to get to but also factor in that there might be a lot of traffic backup so make sure there is enough space so cars can line up. Churches, parks, or school parking lots are usually a good option. Also make sure you have a truck to move the equipment and enough volunteers to help you manage the equipment. I suggest at least ten volunteers.

Another thing to consider is advertisement. Radio announcements, posters, ads, or telling a friend to tell their friends are all great ways to get the word out about your event. I suggest that you start a couple weeks in advance but really buckle down the week leading up to the event and advertise as much as possible. The demand to get rid of the equipment is out there, you just have to make your cause known.

Hilary Nixon, of the University of California, Irvine, has been studying the best ways to conduct a recycling event. She has performed surveys all around the state of California to look at how much people would pay to responsibly get rid of their e-waste, how far they would travel, and their willingness to give away their e-waste in general. According to her and her colleague’s findings, 63% of the people surveyed were willing to drop off their e-waste. So as long as you advertise sufficiently you should not have too much trouble getting the traffic you need to make the event worthwhile.

In your advertising make it clear what you are accepting or not accepting. For instance, some recyclers do not have the equipment to manage certain electronics like batteries or refrigerators, so you need to let people know what to bring or not bring ahead of time. Also make it very clear where, what day, and from what hours you will be hosting the event and sometimes it helps to let people know what you are doing with the equipment.

At the actual event you will need most of your volunteers taking the electronics out of cars so that people can get in and out of the event as quickly as possible. At a collection event I was recently involved in we also had about 4 or 5 people taking items from people in cars and about 2 others talking to the people dropping off their equipment. We asked them a couple simple questions to learn more about the problem of e-waste, like how far they came, what they had, and the reason they were getting rid of it. You cannot require that people answer these questions, but any information you get can be very helpful to recyclers or others in the field of e-waste management. At that past event we also performed on site hard drive erasing. I felt that this was especially reassuring to the people donating and it was helpful to have that completed early on.

Finally, the last piece of advice I have to give is that I think the difference between just a smooth event and a hugely successful event is food. In my experience, happy volunteers that are not hungry make for happy events overall.

Good luck with your endeavors and feel free to comment with any differences of opinion, questions, or experiences you care to share.

“Reason, Not Hyperbole:” An Interview with an E-Waste Recycler

Note: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

Willie Cade Willie Cade has been refurbishing computers since the mid 90s. His passion is his work. He seems to be endlessly enthused by this field and is always looking for ways to better it. Of course …this is just my perspective …as his daughter, so maybe this opinion could come across as a bit constricted. That is why I decided to interview my father. I thought it might be interesting to step away from these, perhaps, biased impressions and get a bigger picture of what it is like to be a recycler, directly from the horse’s mouth.

In 1995, Willie came across the problem of not knowing what to do with old computers so he decided to address it. As he got more involved in the field of e-waste, it became clear to him how relevant an issue it is. So relevant, in fact, that he started a company, called PCRR, that puts used computers into schools and houses of at-risk children. He wanted to fill a need: people needed computers and other people wanted to get rid of computers but they did not know how. Willie knew how. He claims, “the career chose me.”

While developing his business, Willie found the policy side of e-waste especially interesting. He likes to be able to examine good solutions that work for everybody and apply those solutions in the best way possible, but there are problems that make this somewhat difficult. The problems arise when not a lot of solid e-waste facts can be obtained since the topic of e-waste is a relatively new issue. This can lead to opinions without the basis of knowledge; hyperbole, not reason. When the press encounters these opinions they will sometimes present it as fact and misinterpretations can arise. Willie finds this to be one of the hardest parts of dealing with e-waste.

The best possible solution to these discrepancies seems to be more research. So this is part of what we are trying to do with the Sustainable Electronics Initiative. The problem of e-waste itself, according to Willie, can be best addressed by encouraging reuse. He said, “We just don’t think that way. We’re so wired to new. We’ve gotten into a bad habit of not reusing and now our economy is built to buy new. We need to shift from that wasteful style to a more sustainable one.” The positive side to this is that Willie sees this as feasible. He sees hints of it in fashion, for example, with vintage and retro coming back into style. And since green is the new black, maybe the cool thing to do will be to reuse as much as possible, including reusing those old computers.

So Willie’s advice for someone who wants to get rid of an old computer is to give it to someone who will destroy the data and reuse it as much as possible. He also mentions that it is important to know that it is urban myth that you need to destroy data more than once according to the National Security Agency, that does not erase anymore data and it just hurts the chance for better reuse.

To hear more from Willie Cade visit North and Clark for an audio version of an interview with Willie.

Electronics Firms Fight State Recycling Programs – WSJ.com

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Diigo Digest: All You Need to Know About Finding Electronics Recyclers

Note: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

This week’s topic for discussion is about the health impacts of electronic components/waste. I have decided to approach this topic in a roundabout way. Stay tuned for a comprehensive summary of articles that discuss the affects of lead and mercury when they are exposed through open burnings of electronic parts. But this week I would like to highlight websites that offer information to consumers about how to donate or responsibly recycle old electronics from the beginning.

imagesProbably one of the most comprehensive websites about finding recyclers is the EPA’s page entitled, “Where can I Donate or Recycle My Old Computer and Other Electronic Products?” This provides an extensive list of recyclers and recycling programs by manufacturers.

The “e-Steward” program is a voluntary certification program that recyclers can apply for. If you donate your computer to a recycler that is e-Steward certified, you are guaranteed responsible recycling. One way the e-Steward program ensures this is by promising that your electronics will not be exported because exportation of waste can often result in the waste being handled or recycled in ways that are detrimental to the environment and human health.  A complete list of e-Stewards can be found on the Electronics TakeBack Coalition website or at http://www.e-stewards.org/local_estewards.html

PCMAG.COMAnother site offering information on where to give your old electronics is the PCMAG.com Electronics Recycling Superguide. This offers a list of manufacturer recycling programs, as well as explanations and benefits of those programs.  (Note the manufacturer list begins here; use the links on the left side of the online article to access various portions of the alphabetical manufacturer list.)

Some programs are easier to use than others. In Illinois, for example, Panasonic’s collection program offers a large number of collection centers and will take back any type of brand.

Editor of Dealnews.com, Louis Ramirez, suggests the HP and Gateway programs are two of the best manufacturing trade-in programs for consumers because they tend to offer the most money back.

The PCMAG article  also offers a list of retailers that offer take-bake programs.

Finally, PCMAG.com includes a list of web-sites that offer cash for your electronics. Gazelle, for instance, offers free shipping of your item and will pay you $115 for your electronics on average.

I have also found databases that include recyclers which are not on the websites listed above. These databases are:

www.electronicsrecycling.org and

www.reconnectpartnership.com .

(Please note that this post is intended for information purposes only and is not meant to be construed as an endorsement of any electronic recycling website or any affiliated organization.)

I would like to invite readers to submit information on any recycling/donation resource not covered in this post in the “Comments” section below.

Design for the Environment (DfE): Electronics Partnership Projects

According to the U.S. EPA web site, “The Design for the Environment (DfE) Program works in partnership with a broad range of stakeholders to reduce risk to people and the environment by preventing pollution. DfE focuses on industries that combine the potential for chemical risk reduction and improvements in energy efficiency with a strong motivation to make lasting, positive changes. DfE convenes partners, including industry representatives and environmental groups, to develop goals and guide the work of the partnership. Partnership projects evaluate the human health and environmental considerations, performance, and cost of traditional and alternative technologies, materials, and processes. As incentives for participation and driving change, DfE offers unique technical tools, methodologies, and expertise.”

The DfE Program has produced several partnership projects related to electronics. Past projects include the Printed Wiring Board Partnership and the Computer Display Partnership. Current partnerships include the Lead-Free Solder Partnership, the Wire & Cable Partnership and the Flame Retardants in Printed Circuit Boards Partnership. Each project site includes general project information, project milestones, links to any publications produced and a list of the partners involved. Continue reading “Design for the Environment (DfE): Electronics Partnership Projects”

One Student’s Experience with Electronic Waste

Note: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.

Most of you have probably had to deal with an old TV or computer before. When your hard drive crashed or when you needed to update from that ugly tan box taking up your entire desk you probably ran into the trouble of figuring out what to do with the old TV or computer.  I might have a different experience with electronic waste or “e-waste” then most.

I grew up with a “fix it” dad. You had a problem; dad would know what to do. For instance, my grandparents hated the pebbles that fell to the bottom of their pool. No problem; “Kids,” he’d say “its $.10 per pebble, $.20 for the really big ones.” I made a killing those summers.  When my dad learned of people’s problem of not knowing what to do with their old electronics he seemed to have no trouble finding the solution. Students of Chicago Public Schools needed computers and people had working or nearly working computers that they did not want anymore. I was 7 years old when my dad, Willie Cade, turned this into a business. He took unwanted computers, fixed them up and provided them to houses of at risk children. At the time, this just meant prospective giant fortresses of e-waste in my basement.

In high school I grew an inclination towards art but I still had aspects of my father’s love of science and technology. So in college, I decided to major in Industrial Design and Painting. Industrial designers–people that are in charge of making sleeker shoes and fancier blenders–can be considered a big proponent of the production of useless stuff which just contributes more waste to the world. But more recently, industrial designers can also be seen as friends of the environment; they can design things that use better materials, produce less waste during the manufacturing or use stages, or can be disassembled easily and without harm to the environment or sometimes even benefitting the environment. gDiapers, for instance, are flushable and compostable diapers so instead of sending diapers to landfills, you can turn the waste into biosolids. This is the type of design I am interested in.

During my junior year of college I introduced my Industrial Design professor, William Bullock, to my dad so that they could collaborate on solutions to e-waste. They came up with an idea to make a competition for students to design things using old computer parts. First, they wanted a class to figure out background information on the topic. So fall of my senior year I, along with 3 other students, researched e-waste internationally, nationally, and locally to see how big of a problem it was. We found that e-waste is a huge problem at all levels. We surveyed a couple buildings on campus and found rooms full of old computers that no one quite knew what to do with.

In the spring of my senior year I was in the second part of the e-waste class, this time with about 20 other students. In this class we surveyed other recyclers, heard presentations from various e-waste or design experts, and towards the very end of the semester held an e-waste competition. The competition was better than I could have ever imagined. It was held on the University of Illinois main quad on a beautiful day, there were a lot of interested students walking by, there were plenty of great ideas and astonishing presentations from the 21 design teams, and there were 6 prizes that consisted of thousands of dollars in scholarships. There were designs for kiosks, super computers, digital projectors that could be adapted to any low tech classroom, and even things like housing for plants and recycling stations. The competition gave me great hope for the future of e-waste. (For more information on the competition, along with links to press coverage and photos, see the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center web site.)

Now I am working at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center which is part of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My job is to search for information about what the problems are related to e-waste and what is already being done about it. Some days I am more optimistic than others but overall I feel like this problem will get better.

In the coming weeks I’ll write more about my experiences in Professor Bullock’s class, providing tips for how to host an e-waste collection event. I’ll also be interviewing my dad, Willie Cade, to present more about e-waste issues from the perspective of a recycler/refurbisher and William Bullock to hear about his take on e-waste from the industrial design perspective.