A lot of attention is paid to electronics recycling as being “good” for the environment. Recycling is not “Good” as a goal – it’s an admission of defeat. Recycling is a necessary final process to deal with the last scraps of products that can no longer stay in use.
Keeping products in use and out of the recycling bin is essential to slowing the growth of e-waste.
Definition of Reuse:
Every action taken in support of current use.
Every parts replacement – under warranty or post-warranty – supports current use. Every used equipment transaction is a form of reuse. Every upgrade or enhancement to an older model of equipment is reuse as is every attempted repair. When reuse markets function – there is less need for costly final processing into raw materials.
Current Recycling and Reuse Models:
Governments large and small are legitimately concerned about waste electronics and have been adding mandates to cover an expanding list of products. The genesis of mandates begins with CRT glass, because of its potential to leach lead and other toxic materials into groundwater. Mandates continue to expand because other discarded electronics don’t belong in landfills either. Incineration is even more dangerous and toxic than landfills – so electronics should not be treated as trash.
Volumes are vast and growing rapidly. The EPA estimates that 1 billion end of life computers and similar consumer electronics were entering the domestic waste stream in 2015. Of these – they estimate that only 40-70% of these gadgets were being captured by any form of recycling program. When it comes to reuse – the EPA cites a best-case recovery rate (reuse of some kind) of 15% of the recycled materials. This is a very rosy view of recycling since the types of electronics being captured represent only a very narrow market segment and specifically does not include household appliances or even cell phones.
Some think that Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) solves the problem without considering the consequences. EPR has backfired in many locations where the collected materials cannot be processed for free – resulting in new costs to the taxpayer or dumping in landfills. West Virginia recently voted to un-wind their e-waste mandates on CRT dumping because of costs. NY has added new e-waste mandates neglecting to consider that not every County in the state even operates an e-waste collection facility.
Recycling standards bodies have not yet stepped up. IEEE has been working on a server recycling (1680.4) standard for over three years that began with noble goals is now toothless having been mangled by OEM influence. The focus of the standard has morphed from keeping servers in use to worrying about the percentage of plastics that can be recovered during recycling.
Sustainable awards are going towards manufacturers over their “Green” packaging while the same companies actively block repair and reuse. Apple had former EPA Director Lisa Jackson announce the “LIAM” Robot to dismantle one iPhone at a time for recycling, ignoring Apple as the leader in opposition in killing “Right to Repair” legislation.
Focus on Reuse & Ownership
In the above view of the world – the owner is left out. The flow of equipment is assumed to be from the manufacturer/retailer to the user and then back directly to the manufacturer/retailer through either a trade-in or an EPR program. This isn’t reality. Buyers of equipment buy things to use – and try to use them as long as possible. It makes economic good sense for business and consumers to “sweat” their assets.
The longer equipment stays in use – the less e-waste is generated, the less environmental damage is done mining and smelting and manufacturing in sweatshops. It is estimated that over 90% of the total environmental costs (carbon footprint, etc) is incurred in the manufacturing process. The longer each item is kept in use – the more these costs are amortized across longer periods making less environmental damage overall.
Legislative and policy changes are needed because owners are no longer able to easily sweat their assets. There are several causes of difficulty for owners, from products that are made to be rapidly obsolete, to products that cannot be repaired, to embedded software licenses that do not transfer, to manufacturer policies that limit access to repair. Any one of these problems pushes more equipment pre-maturely into the waste stream.
One of the easiest and most powerful ways to slow the growth of e-waste is to restore repair to its proper role under the control of the owner. Ownership is a very well understood concept – as is licensing. The cash register is the dividing line between manufacturer ownership and individual (or corporate) ownership. All contracts state the sale is a complete transaction. Electronics are still hardware, are still property, still depreciated, and still part of the net worth of the individual of the company.
Safe use is also the problem of the owner. Car owners that get caught speeding get tickets – not GM or Ford. If a person is caught texting while driving – Apple doesn’t get the ticket either. Manufacturers have lots of federal requirements to produce safe products to protect the user – not for the user to protect the manufacturer by using things only as the manufacturer instructs. Along with the freedom of owners to use their purchases is the option to be stupid as well.
Restoring Reuse through Right to Repair
Repair is only part of the spectrum of Reuse activities – but in order to repair equipment legally, every aspect of the contract that governs other uses (resale, reconfiguration, testing) has to be correct.
Schematics and Service Documentation: If there is any limitation on access to schematics – recyclers have great difficulty locating all the batteries that have to be removed before shredding.
Diagnostics: Without diagnostic tools (onboard or external) no parts or used machines can be tested for reuse as spare parts or whole machines.
Tools: Reuse is thwarted if tools necessary to access physical cases or logical access to service diagnostics are not made available.
Firmware: Firmware is integral to every part with an IC. Firmware should be restorable under current copyright law, or under patent law. Safety and security patches that have been issued using firmware are part of the manufacturers’ safety responsibility and should be widely available – as any other “recall”.
Service Parts: Without access to parts – repair is impossible. Manufacturers need to make the same reasonable access to service parts to owners as they make to their authorized providers.
When these 5 common needs are available – the secondary market for used equipment retains more value. Whole machines can be configured and tested and resold with full function on which licenses can be applied. Parts have more value in support of used equipment and longer useful life. Owners can sweat their assets more easily with competitive options for repair and support services. As the costs of repair come into balance with the value of used equipment, markets will dictate the end of life of products. Useful life will be at the option of the owner, not the End of Service Life command of the OEM.
Right to Repair is not the end of the battle to extend useful life. Copyright law remains hugely intrusive and badly needs reform. Manufacturers need to be pressured to make products that are more easily repaired and dis-assembled for reuse and recycling. Consumers need help selecting products for longer life – so that there is renewed incentive for manufacturers to provide higher quality devices that need less attention to stay in use.
Gay Gordon-Byrne is the Executive Director of Repair.org and one of the Founders of the organization in 2013. Previously, she had a long career in Enterprise IT ranging from work as a Systems Engineer on S360 products, to systems software and hardware sales as a manufacturer, business partner, used equipment dealer, and lessor. Her book, “Buying, Supporting, and Maintaining Software and Equipment – an IT Managers Guide to Controlling the Product Lifecycle” is available on Amazon and directly through CRC Press. For more information, please visit us a Repair.org, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our office at 973-949-5164.