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Recyclers Face New Challenges in Connected Devices, Complex Materials

electronicsDigitally connected devices and complex new materials mean consumer electronics and vehicles are becoming increasingly difficult to recycle.

Some 15 billion devices and objects are digitally connected and that number is expected to reach 50 billion by 2020, Recycling International reports. These devices are very complex, and this poses a major challenge for electronics recyclers.

Difficulties in recycling connected devices — including computers, tablets, smartphones, wearables, consumer electronics and vehicles — was a hot topic at the latest International Electronics Recycling Congress (IERC 2017) held in Salzburg, Austria, according to Recycling International.

Globally, more than 20 million tons of e-waste are produced every year, with the US generating about 3.4 million tons of that. The EPA estimates e-waste is growing at a rate of two to three times faster than any other regulated waste stream.

Some manufacturers, however, are already taking recyclability into account when designing electronics.

“Dell already takes repairability and recyclability into account when designing products,” Jonathan Perry, producer responsibility compliance consultant for the computer manufacturer, told Recycling International. “The batteries of our laptops are easily removable and we use recycled plastics from recycled electronics in our housing parts, effectively closing the materials loop.”

In an earlier interview with Environmental Leader, Scott O’Connell, Dell’s director of environmental affairs, said Dell works with its engineers to design products that can be easily repaired or recycled.

“We routinely take our design engineers in to the recyclers that we work with to get real-world feedback on good design and bad design,” O’Connell said.

This includes things like modularity, making the components inside Dell computers easily removable with standardized parts, and making the products easy to disassemble with common tools.

“Even something that may seem simple like removing the number of screws on the bottom of a laptop,” O’Connell said. “If we can reduce it from 10 to five, we can make it easier to repair, reuse and close it back up.”

Glues and adhesives can make products more challenging to recycle, so Dell uses other methods such as snap fits, and uses only paints that are compatible with recycling.

In the Recycling International article, Dr. Mike Biddle, managing director of Evok Innovations and founder and director of recycler MBA Polymers, said other new materials make recycling more challenging as well.

“Apart from the increasingly complex materials, composites of mixed materials, the known legacy heavy metals and halogenated flame retardants, new additives are also beginning to emerge, such as nanoparticles, presenting recycling enterprises with new challenges,” Biddle, said, adding that some of these materials are hazardous to human health and the environment it not recycled properly.

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