Right to Repair Plus Recycling May Be Key to Slashing E-Waste
In an interview with waste management expert Mark Kasper, we learned how right to repair and recycling can together make a dent in the e-waste crisis.
By 2030, experts estimate that 67 million tons of electronic waste (e-waste) will be produced globally. E-waste has been inherently linked to the repairability (or lack thereof) of today’s electronic devices. A surging pandemic, consumer behaviors, and changing legislation have impacted how we handle electronics at scale. Additionally, increased integration at the design levels has made profound impacts on a device's repairability and recyclability.
We chatted with Mark Kasper, COO of Clean Earth, an environmental and regulated waste management service, to hear his perspective as an industry insider. Aside from supporting a stronger right to repair momentum, Kasper also highlighted the importance of another practice—recycling—in the battle to slash e-waste accumulation.
An Issue of Semantics? "Hazardous" vs. "Universal" Waste
It’s long been known that electronic devices contain numerous toxic materials. Compounds like lead, mercury, PVC, and cadmium can contaminate groundwater supplies. Electronic components containing these materials aren’t highly biodegradable and persist in landfills.
And yet, one issue for Clean Earth and similar organizations is how states classify e-waste. While some deem these materials as “hazardous,” others group them into a category called “universal” waste. These definitions determine how recyclers and consumers must handle such electronics.
Upon receiving disposed electronics, Clean Earth tests the key functions of assets, expunges any client data, and refurbishes working equipment. Image used courtesy of Clean Earth
For example, devices deemed hazardous waste must meet certain conditions for reclamation, direct use, and reuse in secondary products or markets. Meanwhile, universal waste refers to commonly-produced waste from a household—consumer electronics explicitly being part of that in some states.
For Clean Earth’s facilities located in these “hazardous waste” states, the refurbishing and repurposing of electronic components are held to much more stringent standards. Legislation has barred collectors from sending mass shipments of e-waste overseas to developing countries—historically located in parts of Africa and Asia.
In fact, a two-year investigation by Basel Action Network showed that one-third of its tracked electronics journeyed over 12,000 miles across the globe. Overall, a 2019 UN estimate stated that anywhere from 10 to 40% of America’s e-waste was previously exported. That practice seems to be waning.
Increased Integration Meets Its Downside
As a consequence, much more of the domestic e-waste produced now remains within U.S. borders. It’s up to recyclers like Clean Earth to repurpose any electronics that are functional and viable for resale.
Who exactly buys these recycled parts from waste management groups? Kasper explains that sourcing agents for large tech companies will often buy renewed parts on e-commerce sites. “Sometimes we sell on e-commerce, whether it's memory, power supplies, or AC adaptors for laptops or phones,” Kasper remarks. “As a recycler, I sell high quantities—in fives or tens. As an individual, why would I buy five AC adapters? I wouldn't, but if I were a sourcing agent for a telephone company, I'd buy them all day long on e-commerce.”
While increased integration in the electronics industry is almost always a good thing, higher levels of integration can actually pose a challenge for recyclers like Clean Earth.
Integration is accelerating to the point that 3D integration is becoming a norm in next-gen IC designs. Image (modified) used courtesy of Arm
“Sometimes I'll have a customer who owns a device who tells me I can re-market their device's parts, but I can't because it's all in one unit,” he explains. “When I get an integrated device where the hard drive, the memory, etc. are all contained, I can't remarket it. The way the manufacturer creates the board makes it impossible. So, I'm all in when there's a SIM card that can be easily removed, or there's a lithium battery that I can remove because then I can remarket that device.”
Accordingly, Kasper shared, “I’m a big reuse guy. If you allow me as the owner of that piece of equipment to remarket, refurbish, repurpose it, I’ll do it. I prefer that than just grinding it up and separating the plastic, the steel, and the circuit boards.”
How IP Protection Can Mean Burned Boards
Many device makers are protective over their IP. Kasper shared that Apple and similar companies are especially concerned about their components falling into the wrong hands. After all, specific hardware design often gives OEMs competitive advantages over others.
Many of these SoC chipsets, memory units, and entire circuit boards are flagged for destruction. Companies will pay waste management companies to burn these boards—their IP—and provide a certificate of destruction. To ensure that waste management groups follow through on destruction—instead of selling parts to other device makers overseas—companies will often track their own internals via GPS.
In a study by Basel Action Network, researchers affixed GPS trackers in discarded electronics to learn where they ended up. Image used courtesy of PBS
“If you try to sell a board you're not supposed to sell, that GPS will ding. The company will say, ‘Oh my gosh, my circuit board [that recycler] said they shredded is in China or Ukraine,’” Kasper says. “They track their boards because they want to make sure you're doing what you say you're doing.”
Recyclers like Green Earth have a responsibility to their customers and the environment. Their overall goal is to reduce the environmental costs levied by e-waste. While it’s impossible to reuse and repurpose everything that comes their way, every contribution helps at scale.
When asked if engineers might notice performance degradation in these recycled parts, Kasper conceded that the possibility exists. However, testing and validation are often required to uncover any obscure issues.
Right to Repair: A Key in the Battle Against E-Waste
The status of the right to repair in the United States has been fairly dubious. In a landscape where corporations hold so much influence, many have chosen to lock down their products. Companies commonly force device owners to use their own repair services—one exception being Arm, which has voiced its support for R2R on the basis of backward compatibility, prolonged support, and sustainable design.
Third-party shops do exist, but many operate “under the table” to avoid legal repercussions, and because even well-intentioned servicers must use generic replacement components. That puts customers in a bind: either pay a king’s ransom to receive certified repairs or potentially void your warranty with parts that aren’t guaranteed.
Consequently, customers experiencing issues with their devices find it cheaper or more advantageous to simply replace their devices altogether. This mass disposal contributes mightily to the accumulation of e-waste worldwide.
Specific types of e-waste Clean Earth accepts for processing or destruction. Image used courtesy of Clean Earth
In contrast, a circular type of economy can lend these electronics a new lease of life. “Everything is one big circle,” Kasper says. “Everything we're selling today in the scrap world goes back across the pond and we buy it back.” He continues that some companies will order thousands of circuit boards from recyclers just to remove one type of chip from each board. From there, the company will return the rest of the circuit board back to the recycler and pay for the chip, which will then be reused in new electronic designs.
Kasper views highly-repairable devices as more innovative than those that aren’t. Although recycling does keep Clean Earth and others in business, the overall objective is to improve consumption and disposal practices. This is also why regulators in the EU are pushing so aggressively to protect the consumer’s right to repair. Additionally, recent announcements from the Biden Administration and Washington state stand in solidarity with this movement.
Recycling and Right to Repair Work in Tandem
The fight over the right to repair promises to be integral to the growing e-waste problem. While lawmakers and companies spar, it’s up to Clean Earth and its peers to perform damage control. In the near future, companies and their engineers may be bound by new design guidelines—those which boost repairability and aid at-home tinkerers.
Although the pandemic and resulting component shortages have set back R2R, Kasper's outlook is positive. As component backlogs are resolved and prices fall inverse to supplies, repairability outcomes will improve. The ecosystem will also benefit from devices that are reusable and fixable.
Kasper comments, “I would love if a company, when it discontinued a line, were to say, ‘Hey, you as a recycler can come in and destroy all of these, but let's keep the circuitry and reuse it in something else if we can.’” Currently, circuit boards are often only recovered for precious metals like gold, silver, and copper.
Engineers and researchers have also played their part in mitigating e-waste, introducing new components made of bio-composites and operating machines that shake out ICs from circuit boards. E-waste problems aren’t solvable overnight, but dedicated organizations like Clean Earth are working behind the scenes to creatively decrease these impacts.
Featured image (modified) used courtesy of Clean Earth