The villages scattered around Guiyu, China are heaped with circuit boards and wires torn out of computers like fish offal. The villagers are employed by the local government to process huge amounts of electronic waste imported—sometimes illegally—from around the world. Scientific studies have confirmed that informal processing of the televisions, cell phones, printers, and other electronics in Guiyu has leeched toxins into the soil and water supply.
These scenes are not uncommon in developing countries and more advanced ones with little regulatory oversight into processing electronic waste, or e-waste. Over the last decade, with the world gripped by a fever for new technology, the electronics industry has been asked to reflect upon the environmental impact of its products, which sometimes contain hazardous materials and consume lots of energy. Non-profit organizations like the Green Electronics Council have been very active in pushing for more sustainable designs and recycled materials.
The Green Electronics Council recently announced that it would accept nominations for its 2016 Catalyst Awards until April 1st. The non-profit is seeking electronics companies that have made strides in “resource reduction.” That can encompass anything from reducing the weight of certain parts, using less toxic materials in packaging, to making the electronics more energy-efficient.
Jeff Omelchuck, the organization’s director of registry services, said in an interview with one of Electronic Design’s technology editors that resource reduction can make an impact throughout the product’s entire lifecycle. For battery-powered devices, most of the environmental impact happens during manufacturing, when high-tech materials like semiconductors and toxic materials are processed.
“Little of this embedded material and energy is physically contained in the product, so it can’t be recovered at the end of a product’s life,” he says. “Unlike a soda bottle, you can’t easily make new phones by grinding up old phones, for example. This value is just lost when the product is destroyed.”
2016 Catalyst Awards
The Catalyst Award winner will be announced at the Electronics Goes Green 2016 conference in Berlin, Germany on September 7th. Products, manufacturing processes, policies, and programs launched during the past five years are eligible. Experts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will judge the nominations.
Even though it goes against the electronic industry’s creed of “take, make, and dispose,” Omelchuck suggests making devices that have longer lifespans—or at least use materials that can be easily scavenged from old products. That was the theme of the inaugural Catalyst Awards in 2015, which focused on products that contributed to the circular economy. Last year, Dell won the Catalyst Award for using 100% recycled plastics in certain components.
While the Green Electronic Council is not enacting new standards, it maintains the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, a rating system for green electronics. The organization rates products against criteria like energy efficiency and packaging. Omelchuck manages the database of products that have EPEAT certification.
Launched in 2006 with support from the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPEAT program overlaps with Energy Star specifications, another voluntary standard for sustainable electronics. Major manufacturers Samsung, Lenovo, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard participate in the EPEAT program. And most of the electronics purchased by the United States government are EPEAT-certified.
Managing these voluntary standards is not a simple task for an electronics industry that has experienced runaway growth in recent years. “Few people question the reasons for designing and purchasing greener electronics,” Omelchuck says. From manufacturers and suppliers, to purchasing teams and environmental groups, the entire industry is on the same page. The problem, he says, is determining “how best to do it so each group feels satisfied.”