The Future of Electronics: Biodegradable and Eco-Friendly Technology

sawdust from wood

biodegradable wood sawdust
In  2011 41.5 million tons of e-waste was disposed of. This number is expected to grow to 93.5 million tons in 2016. Currently, a large majority of electronic waste is shipped overseas to places like Africa and China where it ends up in landfills. In the US alone, 4.6 million tons of electronic waste ends up in landfills annually. Electronic waste is detrimental to the environment due to the high levels of heavy metals and toxic chemicals found in certain devices. When e-waste ends up in landfills these toxins end up leaching into the surrounding area.

With millions of tons of e-waste piling up, what does the future look like? Some scientists are working toward making our everyday technology more eco-friendly.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin Madison have developed a microchip out of biodegradable wood. The cellulose nanofibril, or CNF chips are highly processed, but they maintain some of the same characteristics of wood. When in humid environments, they will swell with moisture. To combat the swelling, the chips are coated in a special epoxy that is also biodegradable. The chips aren’t made completely of wood; there are still some metal components on the device, but significantly less than a standard chip. Once the device has fulfilled its purpose, it can be degraded by a fungus. Once broken down, the chip is safe to use as a fertilizer for other plants.

Another material, water soluble silicon, is also being used to create microchips. The silicon in the chips can dissolve in time spans ranging from 1 week to 3 years. The silicon can be dissolved by the fluids found inside our bodies, making them ideal for medical implants.  Further development may lead to an expanded use in everyday devices.

There are also advances being made with batteries. To create the batteries, wood pulp is processed into a porous, foam-like material. This material is then coated in a conductive ink. Because they’re elastic, they can be used in devices with odd shapes, even clothing. The batteries are very powerful; they’re strong enough to power an electric vehicle.
These advancements are encouraging and hopefully indicate that more eco-friendly and biodegradable technologies will be developed and become more commonplace.

 

Written by: Mallory Morales

The Real Cost of Electronics Recycling

Landfill of electronics
Updated October 2018

When we think of everyday things that people can do to help protect the environment, recycling most often comes to mind. It’s a decades-long practice where people have embraced the concept that we must reuse materials, even electronics, to conserve our non-renewable resources. But what is the cost of electronics recycling specifically and why should we care?

Landfill of electronics

The U.S. has been shifting away from the traditional “Cradle-to-Grave” mindset towards the more eco-friendly “Cradle-to-Cradle” mindset, with recycling becoming a standard practice. Today, recycling is much more sophisticated and widespread; done by local governments and private waste management companies as a public service. It’s an integral part of everyday life for most cities, with people treating it more as a civic duty rather than a voluntary activity.

But what exactly makes electronic recycling economically viable?  Is recycling worth the cost? By definition, recycling is “the process of converting waste materials into reusable materials.”  Most products and waste that we use/produce every day are recyclable. However, recycling proves its monetary worth only if the recycled products sold on the market generate enough revenue to outweigh the costs of the process (i.e. operations, labor, etc.). Like most services in a free-market economy, the cost of electronics recycling fluctuates with economic conditions.

Is Electronic Recycling Cost-Effective?

The recycling business not only has countless environmental benefits, but can also be very profitable.  It’s an estimated $100 billion business world-wide. But this figure depends on certain market factors, especially in the case of electronic waste. This encompasses any product that runs on electricity (i.e. laptops, TVs, stereos, etc.). These products contain various commodities, which include assorted metals, plastics, and other petroleum-based materials. Due to this, the current market for recycling electronic materials correlates with the price of oil.

The way this market works is straightforward. First off, companies that make electronic products must buy their materials from commodity vendors. In a free-market system, companies will typically want to buy the cheapest commodities possible to maximize their profits. That being said, if oil is cheap, then manufacturing new metals and plastics also becomes cheap. Companies will buy those new commodities over recycled ones. Recycled commodities only have value if oil prices are high because the price of making new materials becomes too expensive. While the price of new electronic products generally remains the same, costs for making the products will shift between the recycling and manufacturing vendors as oil prices fluctuate.

What are the costs of electronics recycling?

Among electronic waste products there are certain items that are higher in value, and ones that are lower in value. High-value items include laptops, monitors, smartphones, tablets, flat screen TVs, and generally any electronics that have good resale value. GreenCitizen offers free recycling for those newer items. Low-value items, also known as Universal Waste Electronic Devices (UWED), are more prone to losing worth when oil prices drop because they are difficult to re-sell. These include keyboards, CRT TVs, cords, printers, microwaves, scanners, and routers.  In other words, most electronic items that end up in the garbage.

The problem with low-value items is not that they aren’t recyclable, but rather they become too expensive to recycle with low oil prices (We recycle them at 0.75 per pound). This leads to their disposal in landfills as a cheaper alternative. As quoted by Stacey Vanek Smith of NPR; “There is a word for a recyclable that is no longer profitable – it’s called trash.”

What We Can Do

One of our missions at GreenCitizen is to divert all electronics from overseas landfills to local responsible recycling vendors.  This means that we try to accept all electronic items that come through our doors, though it has come at a major cost. UWED items have lost much of their commodity value because it’s now cheaper for companies to buy new manufactured metals and plastics over recycled ones.

Despite this,  we all have a civic duty to ensure that our waste is being processed responsibly, and not dumped in developing countries. That means we need to take the total life-cycle costs of the products we create into consideration. We must strive for a true sustainability model. Part of our mission is to educate the public about the true cost of electronics recycling, which we hope this article has shed some light on.

If you have electronics that need to be recycled, you can drop them off at our Burlingame EcoCenter. For businesses, check out our hassle-free building pickup service.

Questions about the real cost of electronics recycling? Give us a call at (650) 493-8700 or chat with us online!

What are R2 and e-Stewards Certifications?

e-Stewards certification

Question mark on blackboard

Updated December 2018

You’ve responsibly recycled your electronics with GreenCitizen. Now what happens to them? Fortunately, we can re-use and re-sell 30% of the electronics we receive. The other 70% are recycled using only vendors with R2 and e-Stewards certifications. But what does that even mean?

What is a R2 Certification?

The EPA began tackling the electronic waste crisis in 2008 by developing the “Responsible Recycling Practices for Use in Accredited Certifications Programs,” or R2. This program was intended to promote best practices while providing potential customers with important information.

In 2013, R2 was updated by the R2 Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). This update improved the quality of the certification and provided additional best practices. R2:2013 went into effect January 1st of that year, with R2:2008 certifications no longer being recognized.

How to Get R2 Certified:

  • Recycling companies interested in obtaining a R2 certification must insure facility operations meet R2 standards. The current R2 checklist is available here.
  • Submit an application along with the $1,500 annual R2 Fee ($1,000 for tax-exempt organizations).
  • Once the application is sent, companies are required to contact an authorized Certification Body (CB) to conduct an audit. These CBs must be accredited by the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB). There are currently only 6 CBs accredited by ANAB for R2.
  • Companies may need to demonstrate corrective actions have been taken if any issues come up during the audit.
  • After the initial audit a second audit is required to review implementation of the standards. This includes a detailed site tour and interviews with company personnel .
  • If all requirements are met during the second audit, a R2 certificate is issued. The certificate is good for 3 years with mandatory annual audits. Once the certificate expires, a re-certification audit is required with continuing annual audits upon re-certification.

What is an e-Stewards Certification?

The e-Stewards certification began as a pledge organized by the Basel Action Network (BAN) in 2003 to establish and encourage best practices for e-waste recyclers. The pledge involved no disposal in landfills or incinerators, no prison labor, and no export of toxins to poor communities. Beginning in 2006, BAN expanded the pledge into the independently audited e-Stewards certification.

e-Stewards certification

How to Get an e-Stewards Certification:

  • Purchase and download the e-Stewards Standard then review the policies and guidelines.
  • Set up your Environmental Management Systems (EMS).
  • Get price quotes from the e-Stewards accredited independent certifying bodies (CBs) for each recycling facility in each country seeking certification.
  • Contract a CB and schedule audits.
  • Complete and send Revenue Verification Form (RVF) to the e-Stewards program administrator.
  • Determine annual license and marketing fees with the program administrator then pay the initiation fee.
  • Fill out the company information form on the e-Steward’s website.
  • Complete stage 1 and 2 audits.
  • Send fees with signed license and marketing agreement to program administrator.
  • Continue adding additional facilities in the same country within 18 months of certification.

Electronics Recycling with GreenCitizen

With stringent qualifications and multiple audits, we guarantee that your electronics are recycled responsibly with both R2 and e-Stewards certified companies in San Francisco.

For more information about r2 and e-Stewards certifications along with e-waste recycling best practices, give us a call at (650) 493-8700.

Written by Hannah Francis 

The iPhone 6: A Green Apple? An Optimistic Trend

iPhone 6

iPhone 6

With Apple’s recent unveiling of its new iPhone 6 and 6+, many are wondering (aside from how to get one) how much the new phone differs from previous models. The technical differences I’ll leave to the rest of the web, but what about the iPhone 6’s environmental impact? The history of the phones production, as well as recent news make it seem like one of the worlds most popular smart phones is slowly becoming greener. When comparing earlier models with the 5 and 4s, a study noted that a dramatic shift occurred in the number of toxins present in phones, with the later models holding a distinct advantage. After an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer analysis, it was revealed that on a scale of ‘overall’ concentrations of hazardous materials, that the iPhone has been steadily improving in terms environmental friendliness. Though the iPhone 2 is ranked as containing the highest levels of hazardous materials, both the 5 and the 4s are ranked as ‘low concern.’ The analysis consisted of screening for ‘12 common hazardous chemicals, such as bromine, mercury, and lead; component testing constituted a breakdown by case, screen, solder, circuit board and other vital parts; and finally an overall assessment of each device.’ This shows a pro-environmental trend that appears to be something that Apple aims at sustaining.

Early in August, it was announced that the tech giant would begin phasing out harmful chemicals in its production line (benzene and n-hexane) which are known to cause leukemia as well as nerve damage. This change came after hounding from both American and Chinese groups who filed petitions against Apple, on behalf of the workers who were routinely exposed.  The ban on these chemicals is a step in the right direction, although many iPhone 6’s on American shelves were assembled before the ban took place.  Lisa Jackson, Apples VP of Environmental Initiatives stated ‘We continue to lead the industry in this area as we are committed to keeping both people and the environment healthy.’  This statement, coupled with the trend on cleaner phone production makes it seem like Apple is genuine in its attempt to rid its products of harmful contaminants, but, whether or not they follow through cleaning up the rest of their products will be something we will find out at a later date. Until then, all we know is that their trend is green, the strength and duration of the trend is yet to be seen.

Written by Edward Garnica. Please email him at edward.garnica@greencitizen.com.