While more people are working and taking classes from home, requiring the use of electronics, a new study says the quantity of electronic scrap that is being generated from American homes actually is declining.
Researchers from the Connecticut-based Yale School of the Environment's Center for Industrial Ecology and the New York-based Rochester Institute of Technology's (RIT) Golisano Institute for Sustainability published a study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in October that reports a decline in electronic scrap generation since 2015.
Two of the study’s authors, Shahana Althaf and Callie Babbitt, say that while more electronics are in people’s homes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, electronics have gotten noticeably smaller over the years, which speaks to that decrease in the volume of materials.
Althaf is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Yale but was pursuing her doctorate in philosophy and sustainability studies at RIT during this research study. Babbitt holds a Ph.D. in environmental engineering and is an associate professor at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at RIT.
How the study started
“Consumers don’t just own a cellphone or a printer, they have this whole ecosystem of devices that work together and collectively provide the services and functionality they need,” Babbitt says.
The idea behind this research was how the collection of devices people use daily is needed to see the bigger picture; just looking at smartphones or laptops isn’t enough. Babbitt says research has to take more devices into account to see trends.
“While we might have more products coming out in the waste stream, they’re smaller and lighter than some of the products we saw a decade ago,” she adds.
This research started back in 2011 to try to understand the device ecosystem inside American homes. In 2017, the research gained traction with Staples and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). Babbitt says the CTA asked about having a study, based in science, to show the data behind devices and the waste stream, resulting in this study.
“They [CTA] also helped connect us to a lot of data sources, for example, product sales from the 1950s to current,” she says.
Babbitt says the study looks at the flow of these devices, starting from when they’re sold, how many items Americans have in their homes and how long they typically keep them before they go into the waste stream.
What the research shows
Althaf says data collection was time-consuming because determining how the mass of common products, like laptops and desktops, have changed over the years wasn’t a simple process.
“Over the years, [study researchers] have taken apart over 90 products to study the composition of the products,” Althaf says, adding that taking the items apart was the best way to determine the mass of materials within them.
Babbitt says TVs are likely the biggest contributor to the decrease in mass because of the shift from cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs to flat-panel TVs. The mass has decreased even further with the shift from LCD TVs to LED TVs.
“TVs are getting bigger in size, but they’re getting thinner and lighter,” she says.
While Babbitt and Althaf say their research is helpful and valuable to determining the mass of electronic scrap going into the waste stream and how it’s changing, they admit that there are some limitations to their findings and room for more detailed research in other areas of electronic scrap.
“There’s a lot of caveats, one is that we’re only looking at the United States,” Babbitt says. This study also only looks at residential trends, not industrial scrap generation trends.
It’s important to study these trends, Babbitt says, especially when looking to see how long newer items such as drones and fitness watches will stay in use before entering the waste stream.
“What we’re trying to say is that we have to shift the narrative away from mass,” she says. “Lighter doesn’t mean greener, so if you think about the kinds of products we’re putting into the market now and will be entering the waste stream, we’re looking at a lot of mobile devices and everything has a battery. Those lithium-ion batteries are a huge challenge for recyclers.”
Althaf says another major piece of information to note is that this study does not include data from the pandemic, and those impacts might not be seen for another few years.
“When the pandemic ends, businesses might go online forever and then people might keep newly bought devices at home and maybe businesses would get rid of what they have in their offices,” Althaf says.
What’s next for electronic scrap
Althaf and Babbitt say it’s important to keep products in use longer, whether by making them more sustainable from the beginning or making them easier to reuse by making disassembly simpler.
“A lot of these products are hard to crack open to really understand what materials are inside and that really speaks to the design challenges that limit recycling,” Babbitt says, adding that companies designing for recycling could benefit the supply chain in the long run.
When it comes to advancing their research, Babbitt and Althaf say it’s important to look at the role of policy as well as the material changes. Right now, some state laws are based on mass when it comes to collection targets, and they both say those policies might need to change to adapt to the decrease in mass.
There’s also the factor of what’s defined as electronic scrap in 2020.
“In the past, e-waste was clearly defined: a computer, a phone, a DVD player,” Babbitt says. “Now though, we have to really think about the interaction of the electronic system with so many other sectors. The same materials demanded by the electronic sector are also in high demand for electric vehicle batteries, solar panels.”
This research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, the CTA and the Staples Sustainable Innovation Lab at RIT.
Click here to read the entire study.