Electronic OEMs taking steps to lessen impact on environment
EP&T MagazineElectronics Environmental
The Design for Environment report released by the Electronics Product Stewardship Canada (EPSC) explores the progress electronics manufacturers have made in Canada on the three R’s waste hierarchy: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The electronics sector has made a shift to more mobile, multi- functional and light weight products. This past year more and more electronics products have been freed from cables and plugs and become mobile. This trend has made a positive impact on the increased ability for today’s electronics to be reused and refurbished. The Waste Hierarchy 3 R’s of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle are being well maintained, in that order, by the leading electronics brands. Canadians consistently support programs to improve our environment and make the time to return unwanted electronics for proper reuse and recycling. These actions by Canadians, along with governments, electronics manufacturers and retailers are making a positive difference both to our environment and the design of new products. This year’s Design for Environment Report provides an overview of design improvements resulting in decreased use of resources including elimination of many materials of concern, improvements to conserve energy, and reductions in our overall carbon footprint.
With the demand for multi-function products increasing, companies are designing devices with multiple applications. One product can now perform the functions of what once took many devices. One of the most high profile examples is the phablet. This category generally refers to smartphones with screens over 5- inches but smaller than a 10-inch tablet computer. These are devices that function as a smartphone, gaming unit, tablet and PC.
Multi-functional devices will soon surpass single function smartphone and tablet sales and now include phablets, convertible devices (two-in-one laptop/tablets), and wearable devices. The move towards multifunctional devices has a positive environmental impact by reducing consumption of resources. A January 2014 trend report by Global Industry Analysts projected a significant replacement of portable media players by smartphones with built-in media players. PCs (desktops and laptops) are now competing with popular tablets and other multi-functional products, and market changes are expected to continue. As the desire for even more multi-functional devices grows, phablet shipments are expected to continue to rise significantly. These trends indicate that consumers are demanding single, lightweight devices that can perform many tasks. The result will be a dramatic reduction in electronics weights and volumes entering the waste stream on an annual basis.
Requires far less materials
Advances in technology have allowed for a dramatic reduction in the weight of electronics and the types of materials used. Not long ago, users needed a server on their desk to power a personal computer. The workings of a computer are so small today that they can be built around the display itself. The engine of the Personal Computer – the Central Processing Unit (CPU), Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), and Random Access Memory (RAM) are now small enough to be carried around with us in our mobile devices. By reducing the size of the microprocessors contained in our electronic devices, manufacturers are able to produce products that weigh less, generate less heat and increase the size of memory on small devices.
Design for energy efficiency
Electronics manufacturers are responding to consumer demand and government standards for energy efficient products. This design decision has been observed particularly in televisions, one of the largest sources of power usage. Today’s LCD flat-screen televisions use 63% less energy than ten years ago.17 Additionally, computer energy efficiency has doubled every 1.57 years – and is expected to continue at this pace for the foreseeable future.
Electronics from computers to home theatre equipment are being designed with energy efficiency in mind, as many producers are designing to meet Energy Star standards in Canada. Energy Star products save energy without compromising performance in any way. Typically, an Energy Star qualified product is in the top 15 to 30 percent of its class for energy performance.
Innovations in packaging and shipping
Electronics producers have made great improvements in packaging design on many fronts including: use of sustainable materials, reductions in volume of material required and safety of products while in transit. Electronics manufacturers are striving to conserve resources by using recycled materials in packaging. Additionally, as electronic products become smaller they require less packaging and a greater volume of units can be shipped in each container resulting in a reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Design changes that influence reuse
The electronics reuse and refurbishing industry is a thriving, growing and sustainable business. It is focused on computers of about three years of age and floor standing copiers, printers and multifunctional devices from the commercial sector. Smart phones, tablets and mobile devices of all kinds are also increasingly being refurbished, powering growth in reuse. There are many successful companies across Canada refurbishing and reselling most brands of consumer electronics, information technology, and telecommunication products and parts. These are the manufacturers themselves as well as sophisticated operations that provide after sales services to electronics companies. These operations refurbish products back to the original manufacturer specifications, which is critical from both a safety and quality perspective.
Design for material recovery
Electronics products are valuable resources at the end of their first life. Over 40% of the worlds’ mining production of copper, tin, antimony, indium, ruthenium, and rare earth metals go into electronic products. Mobile phones and computers account for over 4% of the world’s production of gold and silver and for 20% of palladium and cobalt. Yet a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report found the recycling rate of precious metals in electronics is remarkably low, (below 15%), reflecting low collection rates in many parts of the world but also limitations in recovering all these valuable materials. This is one of the many reasons for ensuring that end-of-life electronics are diverted from landfills, so that these valuable materials can be recovered, recycled and reused.
Design for material recovery
Canadians are recycling-oriented and want to pass on a rich natural environment to the next generation. Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling programs (WEEE) in Canada are instrumental in facilitating the shift towards a closed loop system, with more and more manufactures creating products with components that are designed to be recycled or refurbished.
Alternate materials use
Industry leaders voluntarily strive to develop the best sustainable alternatives for the environment as soon as viable, cost-effective solutions are available. The use of potentially hazardous substances is in decline in Canada through voluntary manufacturer phase outs as alternatives become available. Examples of substances being voluntarily phased out by electronics producers include: • Shift from the manufacture and sale of CRT, plasma and LCD displays to LED displays eliminates or significantly reduces the use of Lead, Mercury and Arsenic. • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BRFs), a group of chemical flame retardants that are mixed into plastics to slow the ignition and spread of fire, are being phased out when possible through the use of inherently flame resistant materials, such as metal, glass, pre-ceramic polymers, Kevlar, leather, and bioplastics.