US: Deleting Hazardous Waste

Publisher Name: 
LA Times

Before the Panasonic SD Video Camera was born, designers planned for its death.


When the $400 camera wears out and can no longer record video, play
music or take photos, Panasonic engineers want it to do one final
thing: be easy to get rid of.

So it has no lead, no mercury and
no brominated flame retardants - all hazardous substances that make
consumer electronics such as personal computers, digital cameras and
televisions dangerous to bury in landfills and difficult to recycle.
The camera's aluminum casing can be smelted and made into other
products. When its lithium ion battery runs out, it can be dropped off
at one of 30,000 retail stores nationwide.

"We wanted to
eliminate hazardous materials and make it easy to recycle," said David
Thompson, director of corporate environmental affairs for Matsushita
Electric Industrial Co., which owns Panasonic. "This is a design
objective that's being built into all of our products."

And not
just at Panasonic. Computer and electronics makers around the world
increasingly factor a product's destruction into its creation. The
trend is driven in part by environmental regulations but also by
shorter product cycles and a consumer culture that allow obsolete
gadgetry to stack up faster than ever.

"Prices for electronics
have come way down," said Philip White, principal designer at Orb
Analysis in San Francisco and professor of product design at San Jose
State University. "Instead of fixing something, it's become cheaper to
throw it away and get a new one."

Americans annually toss out
more than 100 million cellphones, according to Collective Good
International, a group that collects and resells used cellphones. Each
day, 10,000 TVs and PC monitors go dark, according to the National
Safety Council. And an estimated three-quarters of all home PCs,
working or not, are stuffed in closets, attics and basements - in large
part because getting rid of them can be such a hassle.

"I've
got an old cellphone, and I have no idea what to do with it," said
Bruce Goodman, an attorney in Beverly Hills. "I also have an old PC
with a monitor sitting in a room that I never use. But I can't just
throw away a monitor in the trash. And I'm nervous about throwing away
a PC that has confidential information on it. So they just sit there
until I can figure out what to do with them."

In Los Angeles,
for instance, it's illegal to pitch old televisions, computer monitors
or electronic devices into the trash. They must be taken to one of the
city's five collection centers.

Disposing of old electronics
traditionally has been the customer's problem. After Jan. 1, though,
California retailers are required to collect a $6 to $10 recycling fee
for every television and computer monitor sold.

The
fee will fund payments to private recyclers, who are paid 48 cents a
pound to dismantle and recover reusable materials in old monitors.


European countries go even further. Germany requires electronics
manufacturers to take back their products when customers are finished
with them. Next year, the rest of the European Union will have similar
rules. And by 2006, the European countries will ban sales of equipment
containing lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and brominated flame
retardants.

At the heart of these regulations is an economic
notion that the best way to deal with pollution is to build its cost
into the product. If companies must pay to dispose of their own
products, they would have an incentive to design their products to be
easier to recycle or more environmentally friendly and, thus, less
costly to clean up.

"If companies know they're going to see
these things again, will they design them differently? You bet they
will," said Bruce Sterling, a lecturer at Pasadena's influential Art
Center College of Design, which next year will include "sustainable
design" classes in its curriculum.

For their part,
manufacturers expect tighter regulations to become the norm in some of
their biggest markets. So they're changing the design process.


At Panasonic, designers conduct a 40-step review process that, among
other things, looks at the ability to recycle materials used in their
prototypes and how quickly products can be taken apart for recycling.

Because plastics are more difficult to recycle, designers are encouraged to use metals.

"Markets for recycled metals are much more advanced than for plastics," Matsushita's Thompson said.

Designers also try to reduce the number of parts or materials used in a single product, making it simpler to sort and recycle.


"Four years ago, we did a survey of our usage of plastic resin,"
Thompson said. "We were using way too many grades of polystyrene. We
standardized on a limited number."

A 1984 Panasonic television,
for instance, had 13 types of plastic and 39 plastic parts and took 140
seconds to take apart. The 2000 model contained just two types of
plastic and eight plastic parts and took 78 seconds to disassemble.


Hewlett-Packard Co., which has taken back 100 million pounds of defunct
products over the years, has made similar changes in its product
designs.

"We're aware of what it means to take equipment back
and deal with it at the end of its life," said HP Corporate
Environmental Program Manager John Burkitt.

Designers at the
Palo Alto company look for ways to avoid gluing product parts together
because adhesives contaminate the recycled materials and make sorting
next to impossible.

They also try to cut down the number of
screws in favor of parts that snap together. If screws must be used,
designers use the same type of screws, all oriented in the same
direction, so they can be removed in rapid succession, using one tool.

"We try to make it as simple as possible to disassemble and recycle at the end of its life," Burkitt said.


Manolo Cassasola appreciates the effort. Cassasola dismantles
electronic devices at Silicon Salvage, a recycling company in Anaheim.


Equipped with pliers, wire cutters and screwdrivers, Cassasola rips
apart personal computers. In rapid, smooth motions, he pops out the
circuit board and tosses it into a barrel behind him - a pound can sell
for as much as $1, thanks to the tiny amounts of gold, silver, paladium
and copper used to make it.

Copper wires go into another bin
and sell for about 35 cents a pound. The metal case will fetch 50 cents
a pound. And the CD-ROM and hard-disk drive are wiped clean of data and
packed into boxes to be sent to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, where
they are built into low-cost computers.

"These things have more value taken apart than they do as a whole," said Silicon Salvage owner Chuck Hulse.

"But these things," he gestured at an 8-foot stack of printers, "they're very much throwaway items."


He ticks off their liabilities: too many types of plastic in a single
printer, too much paint, and they're contaminated with fire retardants.

"This is the hardest thing for me to deal with," Hulse said. "We just have no way to economically recycle these things."


As a result, the printers probably will end up in a landfill. In
America, electronic devices represent less than 4% of total solid
waste, but they make up 70% of all hazardous waste.

"Electronic
waste is one of the fastest-growing hazardous components in
California's waste stream," said Kip Lipper, chief of staff for state
Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), who sponsored the bill to levy the fee
on televisions and computer monitors.

Some companies also are
trying to make sure what they send to recyclers is as clean as
possible. HP eliminated paint from many products because dyes can
contaminate and weaken the plastic when recycled.

But "in some
markets, such as cellphones or music players that come in all kinds of
colors, [paint] is a requirement," said Mark Newton, Dell Inc.'s
manager of worldwide environmental affairs. That's why Dell is
researching water-based paints that can be easily dissolved.


"This movement puts the spotlight on designers," said Bob Adams, a
designer at IDEO, a technology design firm in Palo Alto. "They make
decisions that result in how hundreds of millions of items are
manufactured each year. They decide the shape of the object, how it's
produced, where it's produced. Designers are, in a way, gatekeepers."


Traditionally, however, designers have been trained to think of how a
product will be used in its lifetime - not what happens to it when it
dies.

These days, products are dying even faster than they used
to. Traditional cathode-ray tube, or CRT, television sets can be
counted on for at least seven years, with some lasting more than 20
years. But newer plasma TV sets begin to wear out in just three to four
years, said Rob Enderle, a technology consultant. With DVD players, a
precipitous drop in price has also translated into a decline in quality.

Other electronics - PCs, digital music players or digital cameras - become obsolete before they even stop working.


"We want to create designers who are responsible," said Karen Hofmann,
coordinator of Art Center's materials lab and a design instructor. The
school is retooling its labs to research and teach the environmental
properties of materials. "We definitely see a demand down the pipeline
from employers for students who understand sustainable design
principles."

Companies, for their part, aren't entirely
motivated by environmental responsibility. They're also complying with
new government regulations.

"It makes sense for Dell to do this
because we may well end up managing our own stuff at the end," said
Newton, referring to laws that require manufacturers to fund the
recycling of their own products.

Dell is moving away from CRT
monitors in favor of slim liquid crystal displays. The CRTs have two
costly disadvantages: They contain lead and they are heavy. By
converting to lighter LCDs that don't contain leaded glass, Dell lowers
the cost of shipping the monitor to a collection facility as well as
the cost of its recycling, Newton said.

A
prominent proponent of this approach is William McDonough, co-author of
the book "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things."


"There's only one way to make companies pay attention, and that is to
make it relevant to their prosperity," said McDonough, who believes
that companies can be persuaded to go one step further and reuse the
materials that come back as free raw material for new products. "To
change the endgame, you have to start from the beginning."

AMP Section Name:Technology & Telecommunications
  • 183 Environment