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Study: Smart Fabrics Pose E-Waste Threat

The burgeoning smart fabric industry could pose a serious e-waste hazard, according to a New York Times report.

Researchers have been weaving small electronic components into textiles, allowing the clothes to function as mobile phones, heart-rate monitors and other devices. The ElectroScience Laboratory at Ohio State University is building a cell phone vest.   The designer clothing company Rainbow Winters sells pieces that emit light and change color. Scientists are even creating a fabric than can act as a power supply to run all these gadgets.

But few laboratories are considering the end of the products’ life cycle.

The first large-scale analysis of the issue was published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in July. Authors Andreas Köhler and Conny Bakker of Technical University Delft in the Netherlands, and Lorenz Hilty of the University of Zürich, reported that e-textile recycling will be difficult because the valuable materials – including copper, gold and silver – will be dispersed in large amounts of heterogeneous material. The combination of electronics and fabrics pose a special problem, with the fabrics jamming e-waste equipment, and the electronics contaminating textile processing.

Smart fabrics could therefore end up joining the 50 to 80 percent of “recycled” electronics that the Basel Action Network says are shipped from developed to developing countries. In poorer countries, adults and children frequently recover precious metals through use of hazardous materials or through burning, exposing themselves to dangerous toxic fumes.

A recent study in Ghana found that a school, church, soccer field and produce market located near a site for e-waste scavenging had levels of eight metals, including chromium, cadmium and lead, that were up to 50 times higher than in uncontaminated areas.

Köhler interviewed designers, engineers and policy-makers about e-textile disposal, and found that none seemed to be looking for a solution to the problem. “Everybody says: ‘Oh yes! That’s interesting. We should think about that. But, you know, we’re not responsible,’” he said.

A spokeswoman for AT&T, which is developing “bio-tracking clothes,” said the company could not comment on this topic.

This summer the Obama administration released a National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, describing how the government plans to ensure the proper handling of its used electronics and encourage growth in the U.S. electronics recycling industry.

Photo credit: Rainbow Winters

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