MARCH 2009

Report details e-cycler’s end-of-life design wish list

When manufacturers of electronics design products that are easier to disassemble and recycle, electronics recyclers are better able to reduce the cost of their operations. For American e-cyclers, having products designed for their end-of-life phase would help to ensure that more electronics could be processed domestically and less expensively.

The Closing the Product Design – End-of-Life Loop (Closing the Loop) report was produced by the Green Electronics Council (GEC) in collaboration with the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) and Resource Recycling, Inc. The report examines various aspects of product design and surveyed many United States e-cyclers and refurbishers to document their suggestions for improved design.

The report focuses on two key elements:

  • What aspects of component design and other electronics are generally of most importance to the recycling and refurbishing communities, and what recyclers would like to see in the design of products?
  • What product information would be most useful to recyclers and refurbishers to help them do their work?

“This study came more out of the needs of EPEAT – Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool – the eco-label that was adopted and strongly supported by purchasers and manufacturers in the United States,” said Wayne Rifer, manager of standards and operations of the GEC. “It addresses questions about the recyclability of products and the hazardous materials in them. EPEAT is one of the more aggressive worldwide programs in that regard.

“Our work has focused on computers, monitors and related products because those are increasingly the focus of take-back and recycling systems in the States,” he added. “State and local programs that mandate the taking back of products tend to focus on those as opposed to Europe and Asia that focus on broader products.”

Research by manufacturers to make products easier to recycle and dismantle, said Rifer, varies according to each company.

“The leading manufacturers such as Dell, Hewlett Packard, and Lenovo are making excellent efforts,” he said. “Many of the others manufacturers are trying to look at it one way or another. Good manufacturers, though, have a sensitivity to the issues.

“In the end you need to have a common framework or understood set of design elements,” he added. “They need to do it as an industry. Sharing basic design is something that industry does all the time and the electronics industry follows common standards.”

Refurbishers and recyclers work on different business models and have different needs, but good product design, said Jason Linnell, the NCER’s executive director, is critical for these operations, as is having information on those products.

The NCER has established a Closing the Loop Registry (CTL Registry), which allows manufacturers to post information about some of their products that can be accessed by recyclers and refurbishers.

Rifer said that in terms of product design for recycling, companies that produce standard desktop computers, notebooks and laptops are making strides towards easier disassembly, identification of components and ease of hazardous materials removal.

“There are a whole set of other products with innovative environmental strategies that are emerging in the market,” he said. “Apple is a kind of leader there, where their new notebooks are not disassemblable – it is much more difficult to access different materials and so they tend to be processed much more mechanically and in some cases go directly into the smelter.”

Linnell notes that refurbishing operations and those that dismantle for parts have higher labor costs, but because of the different business models, there is still debate about which could be more profitable.

He added that separating equipment used by shredding operations is rapidly improving in terms of separation of various metals, which helps to reduce contamination and reduces the amount of material that is manually separated.

“They are continually testing machinery,” he said. “Plastics are still a challenge. There are many different types and it is hard to distinguish them because they have been mixed, and then you have to get them back into the recycling stream. But the established market manufacturers do care about their image and they tend to do a lot to improve design for recycling and environmental efforts.”

Via EPEAT’s standards, product design is rated for various phases, including end-of-life.

“Through the ratings, government agencies and others who want to buy environmentally preferable products can do so.”

According to Linnell, Washington is the only state with e-cycling legislation that requires manufacturers of certain devices to communicate about design with recyclers.

“A lot of times when recycling laws are passed,” he said, “they are done in place of design efforts. It’s also a requirement of the EPEAT program to work with recyclers to communicate about relevant design information.

Good design, said Linnell, allows recyclers to improve workplace safety, be more efficient, streamline the removal and sorting of hazardous and non-hazardous materials, enhance the lifespan of equipment and increase the resale value of commodities.

He added that Congress, because it is a commerce issue, has the authority to impose a design mandate on electronic products that are manufactured domestically and abroad.

“They have the authority to mandate certain design aspects on product safety,” he said. Asked if there is any possibility of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress passing design legislation and regulations and requiring manufacturers to share information regarding the recyclability for electronics, Linnell replied, “It is safe to assume that this is more likely now, but rather than design requirements, I see either a national electronics recycling bill or export restrictions as more likely. The model in Washington of requiring manufacturers to communicate with their recyclers is rather vague at this point, and may be refined at the state level first before it is adopted federally.”

Report co-authors Pamela Brody-Heine, principal of Eco Stewardship Strategies and an associate with the Zero Waste Alliance, and Anne Peters, president of Gracestone, Inc, focused much of their efforts on interviewing e-cyclers and refurbishers.

E-cyclers stressed that products need to be designed so that they are easier to disassemble, with manufacturers using harmonized screws and fittings and that more snap fittings are employed as opposed to welded fittings.

“We heard that over and over again,” said Brody-Heine. “Every second of delay affects the bottom line, and it added up.”

E-cyclers, she said, would appreciate the ability to immediately remove certain parts for shredding and be able to place them in separate bins, as well as removing hazardous materials that could contaminate the materials to be sold.

“De-pollution was the highest priority,” said Brody-Heine. “People indicated that manufacturers should use bolt identification to show where these materials are located and allow for easier removal of components that contain them. Other recommendations included external markers on a unit that would indicate the presence and location of components. With printers for example, many recyclers often pull out a cartridge housing, only to learn later on that there were cartridge components in other places.”

E-cyclers also suggested color-coding components that contain hazardous materials so that they could be immediately identified and that all hazardous materials are located within line-of-site spotting once the external housing is removed.

“It is difficult to get manufacturers to voluntarily do this kind of redesign,” said Brody-Heine, “but it could be included in a voluntary standard such as EPEAT. It is something that all manufacturers should be striving for, as well as elimination of anything that is not absolutely necessary and to use alternatives when possible.”

Triage is also a priority. This includes identifying what the unit is, the age of the unit, power source, functionality of the features and what the internal components consist of.

“We explored this possibility in conversations about RFID tagging a unit,” said Peters. “If units were tagged this way, they could be quickly scanned. RFID technology isn’t at the point where it is being used in the electronics industry at that level yet.”

The authors of the report hope that manufacturers will take e-cycler suggestions to heart and engage in discussions with them to fill the gap.

“The idea is that ultimately it will be a two-way communication,” said Brody-Heine, “but for now, with the setting up of a registry system, manufacturers can now put information about their products on it that end-of-life managers could access.”

Through EPEAT, standards are being developed for imaging devices (printers, etc.) and televisions.

The report has 4 primary recommendations regarding e-cycler concerns.

  • That information be given to EPEAT working groups to help them develop criteria for the end-of-life stage, including working with manufacturers to agree upon terms such as easily identifiable, easily reusable and easily separable, and provide quantitative definitions.
  • Develop working groups with industry associations or standard setting bodies to come up with common design elements such as screws, fittings, and fasteners; and, for refurbishers, use power cords and other products that are interchangeable.
  • Harmonize power supplies and connection mechanisms, and enhance cross-brand and cross-generational component compatibilities, as well as clearly identify and provide for easy removal of hazardous substances.