Did you know that it takes 539 pounds of fossil fuel, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture just one desktop computer? Did you know that 33 pounds of minerals must be extracted, and 79 gallons of water must be used in order to produce just one e-reader?

What is E-Waste

Developing and manufacturing electronic devices we love and use isn’t just labor intensive — it’s also resource intensive.

Unfortunately, in spite of the vast quantities of resources it takes to make these devices, the vast majority become obsolete within a few years and end up in landfills. This produces an inordinate amount of e-waste, the consequences of which are definitely not pretty. But could smarter product design actually reduce e-waste?

What is e-waste?

E-waste is short for electronic waste. It refers to electronic devices such as computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, fax machines, tablets, and mobile phones that are tossed out because they are unwanted, obsolete, or no longer working. Today, upwards of 20 million tons of e-waste are disposed of globally each and every year, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that e-waste is the fastest growing municipal waste stream in the United States.

What are the consequences associated with e-waste?

At this time, only 12.5 percent of all e-waste is recycled, meaning that when electronic devices are disposed of, they often end up rotting in our landfills. This is incredibly problematic, as e-waste is often toxic. It is estimated that roughly 80 percent of all electronic devices release toxins into the air and into the earth when they are left to decompose in landfills. That includes dangerous heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, and mercury. While e-waste only makes up roughly two percent of all waste in landfills, it does make up a staggering 70 percent of all toxic waste.

How can better product design help with e-waste?

Through effective product design, product designers can actually help mitigate this e-waste problem. First and foremost, design can help encourage users to recycle their products, or resell them instead of throwing them out. This can be done by designing electronic devices that have detachable data storage. “People often don’t return their old cell phones because their data is on them,” explains Sara Behdad, a product design analyst from the University of Buffalo. “We thought if you have two different designs, one with removable memory and one without, how would this affect the consumer’s likelihood to return the product?”

Second, thinner products such as ultra-thin tablets and smartphones are much more difficult to take apart, driving up the cost of recycling and refurbishment. Disassembly of [thinner products] usually cannot be done automatically,” Behdad said. “If you want to recover components, you have to use manual labor.” By designing products that can be more easily taken apart, refurbishing and recycling costs go down, reducing e-waste. The bottom line? Well thought-out product design can certainly help out with the e-waste problem.

Pivot International is a product design, development, and manufacturing firm with strengths in software development, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and industrial design. If you are interested in engineering a new product or updating an existing product, contact us at 1-877-206-5001 or request your free consultation today.