Electronic waste, or e-waste, is piling up so fast that no one can properly dispose of it. Recyclers process more than 1.5 billion pounds of electronics equipment annually. The International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER) says that the enormous volume of end-of-life electronics from all industry sectors will require its members to grow their capacity by a factor of four or five by the end of this decade.
An estimated 250 million PCs will become obsolete in the next five years. Mobile phones, which the IAER projects will be discarded at a rate of about 130 million a year by 2005, will result in 65,000 tons of waste, much of it toxic. "These are significantly larger quantities than had been forecasted in the past," states an IAER study released last year.
Smaller doesn't help. The rapid introduction of increasingly miniaturized (and upgraded) consumer electronic products has simply sped up the replacement of older devices, most of which are being trashed rather than recycled.
A report produced last year by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition suggests that if all consumers decided to throw out their obsolete computer at the same time, the country would face a "tsunami" of e-scrap (Fig. 1). Much of the coalition's research is contained in the report Poison PCs and Toxic TVs, released in 2001 by California Against Waste (CAW), a nonprofit grassroots organization representing more than 24,000 Californians. During a seminar on electronic recycling at the recent International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mark Murray, CAW's executive director, was asked what kind of job the industry was doing to control hazardous waste. His response: "I wouldn't say Silicon Valley is a leader in this area." That's slowly changing.
GETTING THE LEAD OUT
Most of the problem comes from the materials used by the industry. These include lead, halogenated compounds, antimony oxides, and other toxic materials found in most semiconductors; chemicals used in the manufacture of electronic products; and the hundreds of tons of plastics used to produce PCs, cell phones, PDAs, electronic games, instruments, and other electronic products.
In 2001, the JEDEC Solid State Technology Association, the semiconductor engineering standardization body of the Electronic Industries Association (EIA), defined lead-free solid-state devices as those containing no more than 0.2% by weight of elemental lead. JEDEC then introduced a revised standard (IPC/JEDEC J-STD-020B) to ensure that IC packaging meets the increased board assembly and reliability requirements that arose when lead content was cut back in terminations, solder balls, and plating finishes. But technical standards covering the use of lead and other toxic materials are murky, and requirements vary by country and company.
As for the devices themselves, K.H. The, director of package development for QuickLogic, says there's no difference in terms of the functionality of leaded and lead-free packages. "However, if you put a lead-free part on a board, the conditions that the part sees as it's being mounted are very different," The says. "It is more severe in the environment. So, the whole material set in assembling the part has to be changed."
A new packaging technology now under development at Anadigics will enhance its products' moisture-sensitivity-level (MSL) ratings for increased manufacturing flexibility. The novel laminate-based packaging technology for RF packages reportedly surpasses the latest JEDEC performance requirements by providing Level 3 MSL (MSL 3). In addition, the company recently announced the development of an RF module packaging capability that meets European and Japanese regulatory requirements for lead-free devices.
National Semiconductor began to reclassify its MSL for 260°C in 2000, a process aimed at providing customers with more information as its packages moved to higher reflow temperatures for board assembly. National says most of its products are now lead-free (except for solder), and it expects all products to be lead-free this year with enhanced MSL performance. National also now bans the use of other substances in its products, including polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), cadmium, mercury, and chromium.
Actel Corp. offers leaded as well as lead-free packages. "We do that because customers are just now adopting lead-free devices, and it will take them a while to get them into their systems," says Cindy Newell, the company's customer marketing manager. "If another vendor isn't yet supplying a lead-free product, they can't use our lead-free devices."
Montreal-based AIM promotes its lead-free devices by offering a lead-free sample kit, allowing manufacturers to experiment with lead-free solder materials without having to purchase large quantities of several products. AIM is also organizing a series of all-day lead-free electronics assembly workshops in various locations.
DESIGNING FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Another crucial issue involves designing for the environment. The new generation of cell phones weighs approximately 79 kg, or about 42% less than earlier models. In addition to weight, manufacturers have stepped up efforts to design for recyclability. One example is the phasing out of cables containing lead, cadmium, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from decorative parts in wireless products.
Nokia has developed a substance list that it uses to inform its suppliers about prohibited or harmful materials or materials it wants to avoid using in its products. Nokia managed to reduce the weight of its cell phones overall and, in the process, the weight of recyclable materials. The primary materials used in Nokia's new generation of cell phones are metals (40% of weight), plastics (39% of weight), and ceramics (19% of weight). Precious metals such as silver, palladium, and gold are categorized, with other metals representing less than 1% of a Nokia cell phone (Fig. 2). "By having a grasp of the average material content in a cellular phone, it is easier to create trends and define future targets toward more eco-efficient products," says Minna E. Lindholm, Nokia's technology manager of environmental management.
"Electronics makers are struggling to phase out lead solder and other heavy metals on a wide range of products, from toaster ovens to cell phones, in order to meet a 2006 deadline, even though the European Commission will not settle on all the definitions until 2004," says Michelle Raymond, editor of a widely followed report on electronics recycling published by Raymond Communications.
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition says the U.S. should follow Europe's lead by requiring manufacturers to pay the net cost of recycling electronic materials. This approach, according to the coalition, already proven in Europe, will give manufacturers an incentive to design products for recyclability, as well as develop markets for recycling. For a 101-level course in eco-design, GN-Teknik of Denmark produces a guide with examples on how to select and measure environmental metrics, relevant Web-site links, and information on current and anticipated legislation.
In fact, Europe has become the global driver in reducing, and eventually eliminating, lead and other toxic materials from electronic products. "Europe is trying to put the burden on OEMs, making them responsible for end-of-life recycling," says K.H. The of QuickLogic.
Europe enacted two e-waste directives in February 2003. One, the Waste Electrical and Electronics Directive (WEEE), requires companies to ensure the take-back of end-of-life electronic products. This includes nearly any product with a battery or cord, computers, phones, mainframes, and peripherals. A second ruling, called the Restrictions on Hazardous Substance Directive (ROHS), calls for the phasing out of lead, cadmium, mercury, and chromium, as well as brominated flame retardants, by July 2006 from a list of electronic products. There are some exceptions, including cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and high-temperature solder applications.
Japan's Ministry of International Trade & Industry (now the Ministry of Economic, Trade & Industry, or METI) began setting restrictions on the use of lead in electronic products in 1997. Japanese manufacturers, particularly consumer electronics OEMs, have become increasingly strict about the use of environment-related substances. According to the Raymond report, nine major Japanese electronics firms spent more than $1.5 billion on environmental design and compliance in 2001-2002, with Matsushita Electric spending the most at $413 million.
"You can buy lead-free or 'green' products in Japan today in consumer electronics," says Mike Holmlund, product marketing manager at Actel. But some analysts estimate that less than half of 1% of industrial lead weight actually comes from components and electronic systems.
U.S. EFFORTS LAG
At the moment, no programs in the U.S. can rival European and Japanese efforts. However, a growing number of large U.S. electronics OEMs are developing their own take-back programs, or they participate in consumer collection programs.
The Electronic Industries Association, for example, helped the state of Massachusetts start a Recycle Electronics for Charity program with funding from Apple, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, JVC, Panasonic, Philips, Sharp Electronics, Lexmark, Sony, and Canon USA. Dell and Gateway also created recycling programs.
State and local programs also exist. More than 52 e-waste bills were proposed in 26 states in 2003, many of them more strict than the EU directives. In 2003, in response to local communities facing a costly influx of disposed CRTs, California adopted a $6 to $10 consumer-paid advance recycling fee, similar to bottle-return style (or consumer paid) recycling fees. And in February, legislation was introduced in the California assembly that requires cell-phone retailers to take back obsolete cell phones at no cost to the consumer, as well as provide for their recycling. But little is being done at the federal level.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promotes e-waste recycling on its Web site. But it dropped financial support of its own National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI), which was created to promote local e-waste collection. Supported by mainly private funds, the EPA program is attempting to work out a national take-back plan for a limited number of electronic products.
Hewlett-Packard has become a leader in designing products for recyclability, with a full-blown, multi-element recycling program. "Our focus has always been on design, development, production, and getting products into the hands of consumers," says Renee St. Denis, manager of HP America's Product Take-Back Program. "The notion of taking products back is new. It's something we have to continue to work at. It's hard to explain why we're spending for these programs if consumers aren't calling for them."
Indeed, the report by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition states, "Public awareness of the health and environmental threat posed by e-waste generally and CRTs specifically is virtually nonexistent." It goes on to say that "awareness of, and access to, recycling opportunities for e-waste is limited."
The GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN), using its network of state organizations, sponsors the Computer TakeBack Campaign. Its goal is to advance legislation requiring brand owners, such as Dell and HP, to take financial responsibility for the safety of their products at the end of their useful lives. The GRRN believes that shifting the responsibility of waste-management cost from taxpayers and local governments to manufacturers is a powerful incentive to reduce the use of toxic materials and design products for recycling or easier reuse.
Consumer electronics retailers are only now showing interest in taking a role in recycling the products they sell. In 2003, Best Buy collected and recycled 365 tons of e-waste at its collection events. Staples is developing an electronics take-back program in stores in several states. Others are beginning to follow their lead.
In some areas, consumers even pay fees to help recover e-waste. About 12 countries now have take-back laws covering electronics, a number expected to more than double over the next five years. Several European countries require manufacturers to pay fees into privately run collection organizations.
In Europe, e-waste is projected to reach 12 million metric tons by 2010. Displays are a particular challenge. CRT-based computer and TV displays contain four to eight pounds of lead (Fig. 3). Add up the 315 million computers that became obsolete between 1997 and 2004, and that adds up to more than 1.2 billion pounds of lead. (An estimated 30% of the lead in landfills in the U.S. comes from electronic products.)
One option is to refurbish, or "remanufacture," PCs and cell phones to sell into Latin American and other markets. An estimated 90% of the cell phones replaced by consumers for new models are believed to be reusable, although the sale of remanufactured phones accounts for less than 1% of the annual OEM market. (Some analysts believe one cause is that mobile-handset OEMs consider third-party remanufacturing a threat to their market share.)
How much will it cost to remove all of the digital junk? The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition says the cost of recycling computers is estimated at $10 to $60 per unit. But if poorly handled, the cleanup of toxic waste can run much more. Based on conservative best-case estimates, the coalition concludes the minimum costs for recycling and proper disposal of e-waste in the U.S. will reach some $10.8 billion between 2006 and 2015.
"Clearly," the coalition report states, "consumers and local governments have neither the technical ability nor financial resources to address this problem on their own." A better approach, according to the report, would be to build the cost of waste management into the price of electronic products.
As for boosting public awareness, help is on the way in the form of public (mostly state and local) and private (OEM and retail-sponsored, specialty recycling) organizations. Also in the mix are trade associations like the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA).
Last October, the CTIA amended its certification program to require that all CTIA-certified phones include information encouraging consumers to recycle their wireless products and direct them to the recycling program's Web site (www.recyclewirelessphones.com).
Then in February of this year, member companies of the EIA endorsed a resolution with state governments and environmental groups to develop sustainable and flexible recycling efforts nationwide. As part of the resolution, manufacturers agreed to work together to develop a legislative proposal for Congress to finance NEPSI recycling programs through a fee at the point of sale or allow companies to create alternative plans to manage costs without a fee on their products.
"The right way to do a national system would be to allow for some variations so it could be a workable process," says Becky Ellis, director of environmental policy and legal affairs of the CEA. "Companies that are participating are running several different models." The EIA already has a Consumer Education Initiative Web site (www.eiae.org) to provide consumers with recycling and reuse options for used electronics.
For both the CEA and CTIA, the timing is critical. Flat-screen and rear-projection TV sales are growing rapidly at the expense of more traditional CRT-based models. (Approximately 25 million TV sets are sold in the U.S. annually, and less than 20,000 TVs are recycled every year.) For the wireless sector, the market for a new generation of mobile phones is looming, which could speed the turnover of the more than 80 million wireless phones sold in North America each year.
In what would be a worst-case scenario, a 2001 study by the environmental research group INFORM projected that 500 million wireless phones could enter the waste stream by 2005. This could be further complicated as analog phones are phased out of service, which should be completed by 2008.
What's an industry to do? There are lots of ideas, some of them costly and impractical, at least in today's economic and political climate. Designing products for the environment seems like a start in the right direction, and it's already working for a number of major OEMs. But consumers still find it easier and cheaper to simply trash their electronic products than to repair or recycle them.
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National Semiconductor Corp.
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