EW! Ewaste!

E-mail Ed Ramsden

According to the EPA Facts and Figures report for 2003, many waste materials have high recycling recovery rates. For lead-acid batteries it's 93%; for newspaper, 82%; and aluminum beverage cans, 60%. These items have a high scrap value because of their high homogenous concentrations of recyclable materials. That's not the case with most consumer electronics, or "e-waste."

Consider this: If you want to get rid of a nonfunctioning TV or computer, you'll have to pay a recycler to take it off your hands. But if you have a large enough quantity of scrap cardboard, someone will pay you for it. So consumer electronics have only about a 10% recycling rate.

Consumerism Gone Insane
Is a low e-waste recycling rate that big a problem? Well, the EPA also reports that 1%–4% of the U.S. municipal waste stream consists of discarded consumer electronics. This percentage is growing rapidly, but it will be a while before e-waste overtakes paper (35%) as the major part of our solid waste stream. In last Friday's blog I pointed out that there is little evidence the toxic parts of this waste are leaching out of landfills and into the environment at large. So what is the problem with just continuing to chuck old electronics?

The disposal issue may not be critical right now, but something is fundamentally wrong with a society that throws away expensive and potentially useful things. And with an industry that encourages that habit with no regard to waste disposal, recycling, and resource availability. If you want to know what the real problem is, look into a mirror—it is consumerism gone insane.

Fads, Obsolescence, and Economics
When genuine innovation creates new and better products and makes the older ones less useful and desirable, there will naturally be additions to the waste stream. But much of what is passed off as "innovation" is simply "feature creep." Computers and cell phones sport new features yearly or even monthly. Technology fads change more rapidly than women's clothing fashions. Few of these so-called breakthroughs offer more than marginal utility to many if not most users, but they sure do move hardware. There is a whole lot of still very functional electronics out there, maybe even sitting in landfills.

Obsolescence in the sense of not being brand-new might not be so bad if it were possible to economically upgrade or repair electronic products, but a number of factors conspire against this. Even if anyone were still in the TV repair business, it would probably cost more than the $200.00 replacement price to get a broken set fixed. Materials are cheap but labor is expensive. Also, consumer electronics tend to have highly integrated, cost-optimized designs that will require replacing a significant portion of the whole assembly if a repair or upgrade looks at all feasible. So out goes that gadget, along with the TV.

Another headache is lack of spare parts. Modern consumer electronics tend to be based on custom ASICS. When a manufacturer stops making a product, it stops making the chips too. A few years ago I ran into this problem with my laser printer, which needed a memory upgrade to work with some new software. I couldn't find anyone who had the upgrade kits, as it was maybe 7–8 years old. (I am still amazed I can buy cartridges!) After looking at the motherboard, I figured out what kind of memory chips were needed and bought a few on the hobbyist (gray) market. They worked, and so for less than $20.00 I managed to get a few more years out of my old printer. But I doubt this is a typical consumer experience.

Obsolescence is a positive feedback cycle that feeds upon itself. I think manufacturers expect their products to be used for a short time and then thrown away, so they design for neither durability nor long service life. Remember the old black AT&T desk phones with dials? They worked for years or even decades under conditions of severe abuse, occasionally requiring replacement of the handset cord. I have seen a cell phone disintegrate when dropped a few feet. There is no reason a cell phone could not be designed to last more than a decade, other than the obvious: the more that break, the more get sold. And should one survive being bounced off the floor a few times, its owner will likely buy a new one in a year or two anyhow.

Then There Are the Disposables
There are items designed to be disposable from the get-go. Printer cartridges, for example. The first laser printer I used 20+ years ago had a reservoir into which I poured toner powder. Pretty messy, but inexpensive. Modern consumer printers, both laser and inkjet, have sealed cartridges. When they run out, you just snap another one in. No mess, but you are left with a chunk of plastic to dispose of or recycle. Printer manufacturers find it more lucrative to sell cartridges than toner. For inkjet printers, you can get third-party refill kits with syringes or squeeze bottles of ink—much cheaper than a new cartridge. You can bet the companies that make cartridges don't tend to offer refill kits. I would like an inkjet printer I could refill with relatively inexpensive liquid ink instead of having to buy lots of expensive disposable cartridges or mess around with cartridges never designed for field refills.

Solutions—and How They Could Affect the Sensor Industry
Aside from the impractical hope that rampant consumerism will die out on its own, what are some possible solutions? Well, assuming that consumer electronics sales continue to grow, getting serious about recycling would be a good start. Perhaps an "electronics deposit" that would tax electronic devices at point-of-sale and refund part of that sum to a buyer who leaves the gadget at a recycling station. This would be an incentive for people to dispose of the item properly. In places where there are deposits on beverage cans, you don't see many cans littering the streets. Whatever mechanism is used must be simple to implement and not impose onerous regulations or costs on either consumers or business, as some of the EU WEEE recycling laws apparently do. Effective recycling of course, assumes that somebody will figure out a way to reclaim some value from this waste stream, ideally in a way that relies on Adam Smith's invisible hand rather than government's heavy hand.

Why is all of this relevant to the sensors industry? Well, because many of us make electronic stuff there is a decent chance we may be subject to whatever laws are passed to stanch the flow of consumer e-waste. Most of our lawmakers probably can't tell the difference between a pressure sensor and a Playstation, never mind that one may provide decades of useful service before being retired while the other may very well end up in the trash next Christmas.

I like to think that for the most part our industry makes products for the long haul, not for topping off landfills. And that while we may not be part of the solution, at least we are not a big part of the problem.

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