Tackling E-Waste By Manufacturing ‘Smart’ Casings

Tackling e-waste with "smart" materialsRecycling gadgets is a headache no one really wants to think about too much. U.S. consumers generate between 300,000 and 400,000 tons of e-waste that is recycled. Most of this ends up in Third World countries like China, India and Nigeria where people use hammers, gas burners and manual labor to strip the gadgets down to the bare metals, glass and other valuable recyclables.

This is a hazardous activity on all accounts; the people involved in the labor are exposed to health dangers and the methods involved in recycling many devices also creates environmental problems. Both the U.S. and the EU are seeking solutions to this problem and most of the efforts have in common that they put the responsibility for end of life disposing with manufacturers. A new method called Active Disassembly using Smart Materials (ADSM) might be a promising solution.

ADSM inserts fasteners within the materials of the gadgets which can be heated directly at the end of a product’s life. The device case falls apart automatically when exposed to the heat.

“This is one important design feature that might make recycling electronic devices with plastic cases much easier”, say David Harrison and Habib Hussein, the two scholars who investigated ADSM.

They are attached to the School of Engineering and Design at Brunel University in the UK and have set up a dedicated website (ActiveDisassembly.com) to the issue.

The two scientists’ concept relies on the so-called shape memory effect in engineering plastics, or polymers. Plastics can be fabricated in one shape – the unfastened state – and then moulded a second time into a new shape – the fastened state. When the fastened state version is heated, the plastic will revert to its original, unfastened state, as it retains a molecular memory of the form in which it was originally produced.

Hussein and Harrison are looking to get funding from the European Union under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive,  legislation aimed at reducing electrical and electronic goods going to the landfill, providing incentives to design equipment that is more recyclable. The European Union aims to keep technical equipment out of landfills through improving the recovery of hazardous and valuable components during the recycling process. If the method takes off it would tremendously resolve a problem which is projected to expand beyond proportions. Forecasts by Greenpeace show that India generated 1040 tonnes of e-waste every day last year and that the stream of discarded computers, television sets and mobile phones is likely to grow by more than 15% in the next few years. That means that the country will be host to more than double the current waste heaps by 2012. And only 3% of this reaches authorized recyclers.

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