IEEE Takes on E-Trash

IEEE.tv series examines the problems of electronic waste

7 April 2008

When our beloved but broken cellphones, BlackBerries, and MP3 players end up in the garbage, they become part of the fastest-growing segment of hazardous waste in the world.

IEEE.tv, the institute’s Internet television network, is scrutinizing the problems of electronic waste in its recently launched Care Innovations video series. Experts discuss the effects of e-waste on the environment, legislation to help curb the problem, and the challenges engineers face in designing environmentally friendly technology. Here’s a sample of what the videos are about.

DANGEROUS DUMPS The video “Toxics in Electronics” covers the problems of recycling the hazardous materials found in toys and electronic gear.

Many of these devices contain harmful materials that can become toxic to the environment if they are recycled improperly. Some countries, including Austria, Norway, and Sweden, have facilities to safely extract valuable materials like silver, gold, and copper. But the United States and the U.K. send about 80 percent of their e-waste to China and India, where workers at recycling plants extract metals by melting the electronics, releasing toxins that pollute the air and groundwater.

The European Union wants electronics companies to remove hazardous materials from their products before they leave the factory. Its Reduction on the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances (RoHs) Act, passed in 2003, calls for companies to eliminate six toxic materials from their products, including lead, mercury, and cadmium. Experts in the video discuss the problems this presents for engineers and researchers, who are hard-pressed to find decent replacements for materials like lead, which has been used to solder parts in electronics for decades.

LEGAL ISSUES While “Toxics in Electronics” touches on one piece of legislation, the video “WEEE and RoHs” explores issues surrounding the EU’s 2002 Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (WEEE), which mandates that European electronics manufacturers take back their products when they become obsolete.

Because people are less likely to recycle small electronics like cellphones and MP3 players, which are easy to toss in the garbage, the act calls for the building of several recycling plants that will accept these kinds of devices. The EU is also trying to educate consumers about the hazards of e-waste and encourage them to recycle their outdated gadgets.

WHOSE JOB IS IT, ANYWAY? “Responsibility for Being Green” highlights what manufacturers and environmental organizations are doing to reduce the amount of e-waste.

The program highlights Microsoft’s efforts to sell downloadable software and reduce the amount of packaging and the number of discs it ships to customers. It’s also using new packaging made without petroleum-based plastics, which are not biodegradable. Hewlett-Packard has also launched a no-fee program to take back some of its used products, such as inkjet and laser-printer cartridges and rechargeable batteries. HP customers can visit http://h30248.www3.hp.com/recycle/ca/index.html?jumpid=recycle to find where they can drop off their devices. For a small fee, the company will also pick up its computers and printers at homes and businesses for recycling.

Consumers can do their part by choosing companies based on how they deal with e-waste. The international environmental organization Greenpeace puts out the “Guide to Greener Electronics,” a quarterly report that ranks electronics companies on what they’re doing to eliminate toxics in their products and whether they accept their old products for recycling at no charge. The March 2008 report can be found at http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/guide-to-greener-elect-7.pdf.

GREENER ALTERNATIVES Green-engineering experts tell us that electronics not only put a strain on the environment at the end of their lives, they also require massive amounts of energy while in use. The ever-increasing demand for electricity can be met using cleaner alternative energy. However, as seen in the “Green Engineering” video, there are conflicting estimates about how much electricity can be generated by resources like wind and solar power. Many environmental groups say that alternative sources can supply up to 50 percent of our energy once governments crack down on the use of fossil fuels. But the Paris-based International Energy Agency, the intergovernmental organization founded by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 1974, believes that alternative energy technologies are still too immature, putting that figure at only about 14 percent. For example, wind power requires that transmission lines must be built to carry energy efficiently from sparsely populated regions to populated cities. Experts also point out that in addition to developing cleaner energy sources, engineers must also design products with more energy-saving features.

To watch these videos, visit IEEE.tv’s Web site at http://www.ieee.tv.

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