Electronics Manufacturers Continue to Struggle to Make Greener Products

greencomp1Electronics are becoming increasingly important to our way of life and our economy. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, worldwide electronics sales are expected to reach $1.11 trillion this year. The more widespread these devices become, the more concern has been raised over the way they are produced, the way they are disposed of, and their inclusion of potentially dangerous substances, which could potentially be harmful to the living environment.


These concerns are manifested by a combination of regulatory action and public awareness that could potentially exert considerable influence on the industry in the years ahead.

Of paramount interest is the rapid accumulation of eWaste that results, not only from the large amount of products being sold, but also from their rapid obsolescence. Should these products end up in a landfill, it is possible that dangerous substances like lead, mercury, and cadmium could leach out from them where they could find their way into groundwater.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken a lead role in addressing this problem, not only domestically, but overseas as well, as a large portion of electronics sales go overseas, as well as eWaste shipped abroad for processing. Low labor costs in non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries attract shiploads of eWaste where they can be sorted at low cost. However, there is little control as to the ultimate disposition of these assets, particularly those with little residual value, that almost certainly end up in landfills. EPA’s strategy includes a well-managed, closed-loop recycling program with clear traceability.

A bill called the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) was introduced into Congress last year. The bill would have made it illegal to ship toxic eWaste to developing countries. A study found that passage of this law could have generated 21,000 domestic recycling jobs with a payroll of $722 million and the potential for an additional 21,000 jobs as eWaste volume grows. The bill enjoyed bipartisan backing, as well as support from environmental groups and electronics manufacturers. Notably, HP came out publicly with a challenge to other manufacturers to support the legislation.

But it did not pass. The bill is expected to be re-introduced in the next Congress. The Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER), which includes 87 companies operating over 165 facilities in 34 states, has now thrown its weight behind the legislation. Opponents called the measure “protectionist,” saying it’s bad for business.

Clearly, in the longstanding history of environmental regulations, as President Barack Obama pointed out earlier this week, opponents always claim they will be bad for business and every time they have been wrong. The critics’ focus tends to be on the very short term changes that need to be made, rather than on the ultimate result of a cleaner, safer society being served by more efficient companies. Too often, as Ramez Naam points out in his excellent book, The Infinite Resource, the role that innovation plays is commonly underestimated. There are very few things being done in manufacturing today that could not benefit from further innovation, whether forced by new regulations or otherwise.

circuitboardIn Europe, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws, such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, enacted in 2003, have already had a major impact on European manufacturers as well as on U.S. and other multi-national manufacturers selling over there. The concept was first introduced in Sweden in 1990.The WEEE Directive requires producers to provide a way for consumers to return products at end of life, at no cost, though it does not specify how to do this. By and large, producers favor collective systems, where costs are shared by the producers on the basis of market share. Some manufacturers prefer to establish their own system, which is also allowable. There are also differences from country to country with the EU.

This is also true from state to state in the U.S., in the absence of legislation at the national level. Since 2004, twenty-two states have passed eWaste bills that mandate producer responsibility.

On the customer awareness side of things, there are programs like EPEAT, a program of the Green Electronics Council, which they describe as, “a comprehensive environmental rating that helps identify greener computers and other electronic equipment.” According to EPEAT promotional materials, the purchase of over 500 million EPEAT-rated greener products led to a reduction of 90.6 million mega-watt hours of electricity, avoiding some 9.2 billion kg of air emissions, 689 million kg of water, 9,739 metric tons of toxic waste, and 394,000 metric tons of hazardous waste.

Greenpeace has also played an active role in this issue with their Guide to Greener Electronics. Initiated in 2006, this document claims to be “the Internet’s most trusted green electronics ranking.” In the most recent edition, 16 companies are ranked, each given a score from zero to ten. The top score was given to Indian manufacturer Wipro, which received a total of 7.1 points, indicating that even the best of the lot has ample room for improvement, particularly in the areas of product life cycle management and sourcing of fibers for their paper. Wipro, which scored “high” in four of the 12 categories, beat out last year’s champion HP, which earned a meager 5.7 points and a “high” score in only one category. At the other end of the spectrum, Toshiba scored just 2.3 points, barely edging out RIM’s 2.0.

The supply chain process modifications required to enable a product take-back system at the tail end of the product lifecycle are logistical challenges that come with added operational costs. These costs have stimulated efforts for manufacturers to incorporate a design for reuse approach as a strategic effort to minimize these costs and in some cases turn them into net positives, through the development of refurbished and re-manufactured product channels.

But it is at the other end, in product design and selecting the components and material that can safely be used which is where perhaps the bigger challenge of green manufacturing lies.

Once again, it was the EU that instituted rules in the form of the RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) Directive, also passed in 2003. The directive was intended to reduce or eliminate the following six substances: lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls, and polybrominated diphenyl ether. The first four are heavy metals while the last two are brominated flame retardants. Both WEEE and RoHS were recast in 2012, further strengthening the mandated requirements.

In the mean time, we can expect to see continued innovation in this area, but in the form of new, cleaner and safer electronics manufacturing processes and materials, and new methods and systems for capture and recovery of an ever-increasing share of the waste stream.

One other key driver worth mentioning is the scarcity of certain rare-earth elements such as neodymium and samarium which will undoubtedly benefit from new trends such as urban mining. A company called Green Technology Solutions, Inc., is looking at a new process being developed in the Netherlands that, using ionic liquids, can extract these critical elements from more common elements found in the waste stream such as iron, manganese, and cobalt.

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