Electronic Design

We Need Safe End-Of-Life Disposal Plans To Save Our Environment

Designers craft many fantastic products with most, if not all, of their attention focused on delivering goods that meet specs and cost budgets. However, designers often give little regard to what happens when the product reaches its end of life, either due to component failure or just total obsolescence. That must change as we learn more about how the disposal of those products affects our environment.

The extremely compact designs of many portable products often limits how easily their different parts can be disassociated with each other and properly recycled, rather than tossing the entire device onto a trash heap. The exponential rate of innovation further exacerbates the problem, since many devices are only expected to have a useful life of about two years. What should we do with the old hardware? I know I find it hard to just throw out something that still works but isn't necessary anymore. Donating these functional devices and computer systems to various charitable or community services organizations is one way to find a home for them and keep them out of the landfills.

But what about the nonfunctional and dead units that are either too expensive to repair or simply irreparable? How do we safely dispose of hazardous items like CRTs and batteries that contain toxic materials such as lead and cadmium? Delivering them to a disposal company that ships them overseas so they can become landfill in a remote province of China or some other country just pushes the problem onto someone else's shoulders. It does nothing to eliminate the threat, which could contaminate the environment and cause health problems for nearby residents.

Should all products include some type of recycling fee that will ensure that there's some organization in place to handle the disposal of dead products? Would there be enough people willing to pay the fee so that various companies set to perform the recycling can make sufficient profits and thus run a viable business? Although most people would readily say that they would be willing to pay a nominal amount on top of the purchase price, they wouldn't actually pay it unless we make such a fee mandatory.

This raises additional questions. Who would administer the fees? Would the fees be used by the manufacturer of the product or by the store or service selling the product so it can accept recyclable goods brought in by consumers? Or, should the fees be funneled into an industry fund that meters out payments to the companies that do the recycling? Or should the fees be split among the various participants so that manufacturers have R&D funds to design more recyclable products that have fewer toxic elements and the recycling partners have funds to handle the recycling and material reclamation?

There are no easy answers. Furthermore, some of the funds may also have to go to verification support to ensure that the companies handling the product disposal actually follow the rules and dispose the waste properly. We must take this effort seriously and come down hard on any scofflaws and shysters. It's vital that we do something to stop the indiscriminate dumping of hardware. We only have one planet, and we can't continue to pollute it with electronic waste.

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