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Not Designed For Recycling

Most electronic products are not designed with the end-of-life stage of the product in mind. Designers focus on the manufacturing of the productof course, but they generally ignore the realities of how the product will be handled when it’s discarded. They are clearly not thinking about how the products could be recycled.

There are two ways that products are not designed for recycling:

  • choosing hard-to-recycle, or unlikely to be recycled, materials, and
  • designing products so they are hard to take apart.

Hard to Recycle Materials Back into Electronics

How recyclable is your electronic gadget? A big part of the answer depends on the materials the designers chose to use.  Often, the materials used in electronics are the biggest challenge for recycling. While manufacturers will tell us that their products are “completely” recyclable, the toxic materials in these products actually make it impossible to recycle them back into electronic products. While some of the recycled metals can be recycled into new electronics, other materials – particularly the plastics-  get “downcycled” into something else at best. It’s the toxics in electronics that pose the biggest recycling challenges.

See our Toxics in Electronics page for more info on the toxics and health effects.

Here are some of the challenges these materials pose:

crt

CRT glass. Cathode Ray Tube TVs and monitors contain four to eight pounds of lead, mostly in the glass of the CRT. This glass can only either go into a lead smelter (which uses a thermal process to recover the lead) or goes into “glass-to-glass” recycling – to a manufacturer who takes old CRT glass and makes new CRTs out of it. But it costs money to send glass to a smelter, and the shrinking market for CRTs has put many glass-to-glass recycling operations out of business. Dealing responsibly with CRT glass is one of the recyclers’ biggest challenges because it costs them money – they have to pay to send leaded glass to a decent smelter.

Plastics. Plastics comprise a large volume of most electronic products. But most of them have toxic additives, either brominated flame retardants (BFRs) or PVC, which make them too contaminated to recycle into new electronic products. (Many companies are moving away from using BFRs or PVC.)  Some of the plastics can be “downcycled” – recycled into lower grade product, like deck furniture, composite decking material. A lot of the plastics are used as aggregate in road building.

Hard to Take Apart

Recyclers typically do some amount of product disassembly as the first step in the recycling process, at a minimum to remove the toxic components (mercury-containing parts, batteries, circuit boards, toner). But many products are not designed to be easily disassembled, using glue instead of fasteners, using, a whole range of screw sizes in one product (making the recycler use many different screwdrivers to remove them), making it hard to find fasteners, etc.

Case Study: LCD TVs Are Not Designed For Recycling

The LCD TV is perhaps the “poster child” for how electronics are not designed with recycling in mind, because of both material selection and physical design.

Most LCD TVs use mercury lamps to light the screen. An LCD TV will have typically 20 long, thin, fragile mercury lamps running from side to side, throughout the panel. Mercury is very toxic at very small amounts. So a responsible recycler would want to remove these mercury lamps before putting the rest of the device in a shredder or doing other processing that might lead to mercury exposure of recycling workers.

But to get at the mercury lamps inside a flat panel TV, you must disassemble the entire TV first, a process that takes a long time – much longer than it would take you to disassemble a CRT TV. So as a result, some recyclers simply toss the whole thing in the shredder, most certainly exposing their workers to mercury.

The “glass” in the LCD screen is made up of a layer of many kinds of liquid crystals. The liquid crystals are one of the most expensive materials in the TV. Can the LCD glass get recycled, to recover the liquid crystals? No, the “recommended” method of disposal of liquid crystals is incineration.

Inside this 40 inch LCD flat panel TV, there are 22 thin, fragile mercury lamps, which light the TV screen. The entire TV must be disassembled to get access to these bulbs, making replacement of bulbs difficult and expensive.

Photo courtesy Purdue University.