Every hour of every day the world generates an enormous amount of electronic waste, and it probably comes as no surprise that the majority of that e-waste comes from the United States. "To give you a perspective on just how much e-waste is generated imagine this," explains Stanford University student Aaron Engel-Hall. "In one hour the world generates enough e-waste to fill the seating area of two Olympic stadiums. That's a whole lot of waste.”
Engel-Hall knows whereof he speaks, having spent the last nine months as part of a team of mechanical engineering students from Stanford University and Finland's Aalto University researching the problem of e-waste. Sponsored by the design software firm Autodesk, the students spent nine months researching, prototyping, and conducting user tests with the goal of making electronics recycling a simpler, more effective, and more engaging process for consumers with the goal of reducing the amount of e-waste that goes to landfills.
"Our culture of more, more, faster, faster, smaller-cooler-gadgets is not showing any signs of letting up," says Engel-Hall. "So something needs to be done…[and that’s] where we come in. If our team can develop a more recyclable electronic device then we can take what we learned from that experience and share that 'recyclable design' wisdom with others and hopefully inspire people to pick up where we left off."
That's what the enterprising group has done with Bloom, a prototype laptop computer made possible in part by Autodesk's modeling software, and designed so that its user can easily disassemble it without any tools in just 30 seconds (part of the process is shown in the photos here). The LCD, motherboard, and battery easily separate and can be place inside a prepaid envelope hidden behind the screen and mailed to a specialized recycling facility. The rest of the computer can be tossed in the average household recycling bin.
While the majority of an electronic device is just metal, plastic, and glass—materials that could be thrown in your home recycling—the difficulty in recycling electronics is in separating those components into like materials.
"The reason you can't do that normally is because these materials are all mixed together and locked up tight with hundreds of screws and fasteners," Engel-Hall explains. "And in every electronic device there are several "bad apples" like LCDs, batteries, processors, and other components that require special recycling facilities to deal with them."
The Stanford/Aalto students chose to focus on the laptop arch because it contained almost every "bad apple" imaginable. Now the progress they've made towards transforming a laptop into a recyclable device can be applied to any device on the market.
"Our team wanted to make it easy for the consumer to separate out the "bad apples" and recycle the rest of the laptop in their own recycling bins," says Engel-Hall. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an estimated 1.9 to 2.2 millions tons of electronics became obsolete in 2005 alone, and only about 379,000 tons of that was recycled. In that context, this team's accomplishment goes along way toward pushing companies away from making the stuff “The Story of Electronics” documentarian Annie Leonard describes as "designed for the dump."
How do you like them apples?