E-waste: How industry associations are helping engineers design for reuse and recycling

6 mins read

Electronic waste is a huge global problem and one whose impact on our environment is not expected to lessen any time in the near future.

According to WRAP – the Waste Resources Action Programme, a UK organisation which helps businesses, local authorities and individuals to reduce waste and be more resource efficient – electrical and electronic products represent the fastest growing waste stream in the UK, with more than 1million tonnes generated every year. Discarded computers, mobile phones, printers, digital music devices, refrigerators, toys and televisions are just some of the items at the top of the e-waste heap, which is expected to grow by as much as 500% over the coming years. From August 2005 and July 2006 respectively, all companies producing electrical and electronic products, components and sub assemblies have had to comply with two items of EC legislation: the Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and the Directive on the Restriction of Use of Certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in electrical and electronic equipment. The WEEE Directive was introduced into UK law to reduce the amount of electronic equipment being produced and to encourage everyone to reuse, recycle and recover it. It also aims to improve the environmental performance of businesses that manufacture, supply, use, recycle and recover electrical and electronic equipment. "WEEE is the fundamental directive the EU has implemented to address e-waste," explained Gerrard Fisher, WRAP's special advisor on WEEE. "Its aim is to track the sale of electrical and electronic equipment as it's put on the market. Once these products reach their end of life, they become waste electrical and electronic equipment. The products must then be disposed of in accordance with EU guidelines." One of the main requirements of the WEEE Directive is for electronic goods to be designed in a way that makes them easily recyclable. For design engineers, this means using more environmentally friendly materials, designing for assembly and disassembly, designing to minimise resource consumption and using fewer hazardous substances. "Much of the work we do at WRAP is around encouraging businesses to design for extended life," noted Fisher. "Designing a product so that it can be easily serviced and upgraded can reduce the cost of repairing products that fail quality control inspections or which are returned under warranty. Companies can do this by considering higher specification components, designing parts for equal lifetime, designing for disassembly and ensuring replaceable and upgradable components have easy accessibility. All of these things can help future proof designs and enhance brand value." Fisher points to consumer electronics giant HP as an example of a company exploiting a more modular design approach to extend the life expectancy of its products. HP's recently announced Z1 computer, a 27in all in one workstation, has been designed so that everything from the hard drive to the graphics can be replaced or upgraded without the need for any tools. As well as a gold rating – the highest available – from global green electronics organisation EPEAT, the Z1 is packaged using materials with a lower environmental impact and is said to significantly reduce downtime. HP claims it offers users a completely new level of upgradeability. Also making use of a more modular approach is Plextek, a design consultancy specialising in product and systems design for communications, aerospace, defence and medical applications. The firm says it has started to approach design in a more modular way because it makes it easier to specify products for re-use. Henk Koopmans, vp of marketing and sales at Plextek, explained: "Whilst is it often difficult to re-use individual components, we approach design in a modular way because it makes it easier and cheaper to disassemble products. This means modules, such as power supplies and timer units, can be re-used in their entirety because of their generic functionality." Since the introduction of the WEEE Directive in 2005, the re-use of electronic components has become big business. In the Far East, in particular, whole industries have been built on the harvesting of components from discarded electronic products. This has, however, given rise to the problem of counterfeit electronic components. Because of concerns over safety, particularly with regards to medical electronics, the US has put into place new import control legislation to stop counterfeit electronic components getting into the value chain. Policing this has proved difficult. In 2011, a new British specification – PAS 141 – was established by the British Standards Institution. This addresses the re-use of electronic equipment and sets requirements for those involved in re-use to help minimise the impact of electrical and electronic equipment on the environment and to assure consumers that any re-use electrical and electronic equipment is fit for purpose, both in terms of safety and function. "In a few months, you can expect to see products coming out through re-use channels that will be labelled as PAS 141 compliant," explained Fisher. "This is basically a quality mark which says that a product is electrically safe and working. Consumers who may have been deterred from purchasing reused or refurbished goods due to safety and quality reasons can be assured that PAS 141 labelled products are functional, free of protected data and are backed by warranty. The standard can also help regulatory bodies differentiate between 'bona fide' and illegal exports of waste." Cost is the major factor Whilst Koopmans and Fisher believe that new legislation can drive innovation, Richard Waterhouse of trade association Intellect takes the viewpoint that most companies adhere to standards and directives because of necessity and that cost is, and always will be, the main driving factor. He commented: "Companies are legislation led when designing, but with the often very small margins in electronics, manufacturers can't be expected to produce a product that is more eco friendly at the detriment of cost and form factor. Extending the product life cycle is an option, but again it's about cost, time and convenience. We live in a consumer driven society and the reality is that most consumers would rather buy a new phone than send in their old one for repair." Waterhouse continued: "It's easy to say let's not throw away all of our unwanted goods; let's design in a more sustainable way and try to recycle more. When you get into the financial side, there's always a 'yes, but'. Technology has to evolve constantly; it's the nature of the beast. There is always going to be a trade off between continued development and creating an environmentally sound product that lasts a long time." Addressing the issue of cost, Fisher says companies should focus their efforts on producing high quality goods, designing sustainably and increasing their brand reputation, rather than going down the path of price war. "Culturally, people often look for a bargain and a good deal," he said. "But there's got to be a trade off between quality and price. Since the electronics market isn't actually growing, companies need to ask themselves how they will expand their market share. If they try to compete on price, they're probably going to produce lower quality products, which isn't a long term survival strategy." Fisher points to research undertaken by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which looked at the ways consumers perceive their electronic goods. "There are three categories," he explained. "The first category is made up of fashionable items that look good and are exciting. The second includes investment products such as tvs and the third is something Defra refers to as 'workhorse' electrical goods, necessary pieces of equipment like washing machines that last a long time." It is in these long life products, according to Fisher, that consumers are likely to value extended product life, which is why manufacturing companies should strive to achieve this. While Waterhouse agrees, he claims no company has yet found the Holy Grail. "We all do what we can," he noted. "We all adhere to the regulations that we have to, but at the end of the day, it is the consumer who buys our products." Fisher continued: "Bigger brands are now looking at how they can design in a more environmentally friendly way and are focusing on long term sustainability plans. At WRAP, we are currently looking at ways in which we can help such companies do their business differently so that it is not based on a sales/volume/profit model. What we want is for companies to go beyond compliance and improve practices." In the mass market, Fisher says it is difficult to know whether the problem is going to get better or worse. "It's a very complicated picture," he noted. "More promotion and awareness is needed if the problem of e-waste is ever going to get better. The easiest thing to design for is re-use and modularity. The trouble is that designers tend to think in the 'here and now' and often don't think about end of life. It's our job to try to make sure they do." Coherent WEEE requirements Established in 2002, the WEEE Forum is a not for profit association of 42 European WEEE producer responsibility organisations. Its aim is to provide a platform for these organisations to foster ideas and share best practices while optimising environmental performance through a proper management of electrical and electronic waste. In 2009, the organisation created the WEEELABEX project. On the one hand, this aims to design a set of European standards with respect to the collection, sorting, storage, transportation, preparation for re-use, treatment and disposal of all kinds of WEEE. On the other hand, it's looking to create a set of rules and procedures to guarantee conformity verification. The WEEELABEX standards, said to be the world's first continental, comprehensive and coherent set of requirements on operations from collection to disposal of WEEE, are aimed at making environmental performance more transparent. The objective is to stimulate operators to meet high standards, to promote the high quality recovery of secondary raw materials, lessen pollution, improve occupational conditions for workers and prevent illegal shipments of WEEE. The WEEELABEX standards are expected to have an immediate and large scale impact on the entire WEEE chain, from collection to disposal and the WEEE Forum is hopeful WEEELABEX will be acknowledged by authorities as a new global benchmark.