If you look in your trash drawer at home, you will likely find a jumble of electronic device chargers – many of them likely out of date. Late last week, the European Union proposed a new regulation aimed at solving this problem by requiring all small electronic devices (including phones, tablets, portable speakers and cameras) to have the same type of charging port. All electronic devices sold in the EU would have to be converted to the USB-C standard within two years.
European officials claim that this universal standard not only increases consumer convenience, but also reduces e-waste. Critics of such measures, including Apple – which uses a proprietary charging port for its phones – claim the move will stifle innovation. And if USB-C inevitably gives way to the next improved charging method, people will still have to invest in new chargers. However, the real implications of this law may not be as simple as the two sides suggest.
“Based on what we know about the e-waste stream, the relative reduction in e-waste from the chargers alone is likely to be relatively small,” said Callie Babbitt, professor of sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she studies e-waste. “But I think the greater potential is for this to be a good test case to require manufacturers to think about standardization and consumer-friendly design – and then actually see if there is or is an increase in throw-away due to technological changes whether we? actually see a reduction because consumers do not replace products and chargers as often. ” Scientific American spoke to Babbitt about the scale of the e-waste problem, how researchers are planning to solve it, and whether this new rule is a step in the right direction.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How much e-waste do we throw away and why is that a problem?
Households in the USA dispose of almost two million tons of electronics every year. And these are just households. If you include companies, companies and industry, the number is estimated to double. Recycling is very important – but not so much in terms of trying to avoid dangers in the environment, because over time we have been able to successfully contain many of these dangers. The challenges related to electronics that we throw away are more related to what we throw away. We have invested enormous resources in production: We have mined metals all over the world, sometimes in places that are socially and ecologically very endangered. We put a lot of energy into refining these metals, manufacturing components and then assembling the products. [E-waste] contains many valuable things like gold, rare earth elements, cobalt, lithium – things that are really important to our society. So if we throw something away instead of reusing or recycling it, we are wasting all of those resources.
Will the switch to a universal charging standard reduce e-waste?
There are two potential benefits to this strategy. The first is the direct benefit of [no longer] Buying a new device means throwing away a charger and it’s no longer compatible. The benefit there is relatively small. If you look at the electronics [households] In the US, the vast majority of these are things like televisions, computers, printers – because these things are heavy and contain a lot of material and weight. Even if we throw away a lot of phones, chargers and the like, they are actually only a relatively small part of the mass. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are harmless. They still contain valuable materials with cables that are often made of copper and aluminum, and then we cover them with a plastic that has its own challenges. The greater benefit could be more indirect: this is possibly something that could allow for a change in consumer behavior. If your charger is still working, it may also be a sign that your product is still working and that you can use it longer. And maybe there could be an indirect benefit to consumers in continuing to repair and extend the life of the products and components they already have, which is a change of mindset.
How can greater standardization have these indirect benefits of extending the life of electronic devices?
If you want to repair or recycle electronics, all parts are the same for standardized components. In my lab, we have a huge workbench full of screwdrivers and tools of all sizes, shapes, and types – because that’s what it takes to actually access the components in electronics. The reason for this is because there is no design standardization at all, which means that if you are a company trying to get into reuse and recycling, you will have to spend more on labor, costs, and supplies to actually get it do really valuable work. We know that by standardizing parts, components and markings, we can actually achieve many of the “circular economy” goals. The idea of circular economy is that we try to use resources for as long as possible: we want to minimize the amount of resources we take from the earth and the amount of waste we ultimately bring back into nature.
Could a universal charging standard hinder technological progress?
There is a balance between accepting the environmental benefits that can result from technological advancement while following very strong and effective design practices for the circular economy. solutions [such as standardization] must be agile enough to react to technological progress, because this progress can be of great benefit in itself. And a good example of this is the change in television. Twenty years ago e-waste increased in the US because people ditched the big, box-shaped cathode ray tube televisions. They are extremely heavy [with] many dangerous substances – some contain up to five pounds [2.3 kilograms] Lead per TV – and very difficult to recycle. And if you look forward to where we are now, you can get a bigger, better display that uses a lot less energy and uses a lot less materials in the flat panel technology we have now.
What are some examples of effective e-waste regulations?
There are many different ways you can accomplish this. [For instance], you can set targets for the percentage of recycled content and recyclability. Compared to the EU, the US usually takes a more voluntary approach. A good example of this is what is known as the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which was developed by stakeholders that really cover the entire electronics sector. The idea there was to develop a series of rating systems to actually evaluate the design of electronic products in terms of their recyclability or sustainability. In addition to many other strategies, manufacturers are credited with choosing recycled material instead of virgin material, for example, or making the product easily accessible for repairs. Many US institutions – including the federal government as well as many universities, companies, and communities – have written in their own purchasing standards that every electronics purchased has a certain level of certification [EPEAT] Rating System. However, while this is a voluntary mechanism, there has been business pressure on manufacturers to actually get involved and develop products [to be] more environmentally friendly.
Dealing with used electronics and e-waste is incredibly complex, and no single policy will be able to address all of this effectively. Indeed, it will require a concerted effort with several actors involved. Politics play a key role. Manufacturers play a key role. At the same time, however, we must also invest in the development of new recycling technologies. We need to change the way products can be repaired. And we need to educate consumers on how they can actually participate in the system. This is what it takes to truly meet the electronics circular economy goals.