The 2nd generation iPads are about to hit the shelves. The Android pads are coming. Blackberry’s PlayBook is almost here. And everyone and his dog are buying smartphones these days. This sounds great until you realize that this means that lots of people are going to be discarding their old phones and netbooks, of which only 10% are recycled each year (according to the EPA, as discussed in this Brighthand article that asks why cell phone recycling rates [are] so low).
And to make matters worse, lifecycles for these types of consumer electronics are growing shorter every month. People used to keep their phones for years. The current life-span is now estimated by most analysts to be between 18 and 24 months and some people are trading their phones in every year. When you consider that the average person now owns one or more computers, laptops, cell-phones, portable media players, GPS systems, etc., and that some estimates place the number of electronic devices per consumer as high as 10, you see a dangerous situation emerging. Adding the numbers up, we see that it won’t be long before there are 3 Billoion consumer electronic devices being disposed of each year, with only 300 Million being recycled if current trends continue.
We’re at the point where we have to go beyond the standard reduce, reuse, recycle mantra that has been chanted for years, and design for recycle, as this blog first suggested to you three years ago. In addition, with certain natural resources becoming scarce, you also need to design for reduced resource utilization and reuse. Especially since many of these electronic devices still contain hazardous materials.
If design for recycle is done right, there will be a refurbishment phase which will allow for reuse as long as the device has a usable life. This has many benefits for manufacturers and retailers as the cost of refurbishment for phones, pads, and laptops can often be much less the cost of producing a new device (especially when the cost of energy is factored in as it takes huge amounts of energy to create these devices, but very little to have a human pop out a single defective component and pop in a new one). Plus, the market for refurbished devices is about to boom as there are millions of people in emerging countries who will be ready for smartphones when the next generation of mobile devices comes out in addition to millions of people in the developed world who have yet to switch to smartphones and pads.
Plus, with the cost of raw materials increasing as fast as energy, and the looming threat of end-of-life directives that would force all producers of electronics components to take their disposed products back, design for recycle just makes sense. Reducing raw materials and energy requirements will save a lot of money. Designing phones so that as many components as possible can be reused when the phone can no longer be refurbished reduces future production costs and waste. And minimizing or, better yet, completely eliminating hazardous materials can simplify and increase the effectiveness of recycling. All-in-all, designing for eventual recycling will not only save money and increase profits, but might be the only way an electronics manufacturer can survive in this tough economy if more regulations hit the industry.