You’re sure to find a tangled mess of electrical gadget chargers in your rubbish drawer at home, many of which are probably obsolete.
The European Union proposed a new law late last week that would address this issue by mandating all tiny electronics (such as phones, tablets, portable speakers, and cameras) to have the same sort of charging port.
Within two years, all such electronics sold in the EU would have to transition to the USB-C standard.
According to European experts, this unified standard not only improves consumer convenience but also reduces electronic waste.
Apple, which employs a proprietary charging port on its phones, is among those who argue that such rules will hinder innovation.
People will still need to invest in new chargers when USB-C eventually gives way to the next superior charging option.
However, the exact consequence of this law may not be as straightforward as either side indicates.
“Based on what we know about what’s in the electronic waste stream, the relative reduction in the amount of e-waste due to chargers alone will probably be pretty minimal,” says Callie Babbitt, a sustainability professor at Rochester Institute of Technology who researches electronic trash.
“But I think the bigger potential is that this is a good test case for requiring manufacturers to think about standardization and consumer-friendly design—and then actually seeing whether there is an increase in discarding as technology changes or if we see a reduction because consumers aren’t replacing products and chargers as frequently.”
Babbitt discussed the scope of the e-waste problem, how researchers plan to address it, and if this new law is a move in the right way with Scientific American.
WHERE DO WE THROW OUR ELECTRONIC WASTE, AND WHY IS THAT A PROBLEM?
Every year, households in the United States waste just about two million metric tonnes of electronics.
And that’s simply in terms of households. When firms, companies, and industries are taken into account, the figure is likely to quadruple.
Recycling is really important—but not so much in terms of preventing risks from entering the environment since we’ve been able to design out a lot of those hazards over time.
The difficulties involved with discarded gadgets are more tied to what we’re throwing away.
We’ve put a lot of money into production: we’ve mined metals from all over the world, including those from highly socially and environmentally fragile areas.
We’ve put a lot of effort into refining those metals, fabricating components, and finally putting the items together.
[E-waste] contains a variety of valuable materials, including gold, rare earth elements, cobalt, and lithium—materials that are vital to our society.
So, rather than reusing or recycling something, we waste all of those resources when we throw them away.
DO YOU THINK CHANGING TO A UNIVERSAL CHARGING STANDARD WILL REDUCE E-WASTE?
This method has two potential advantages. The first is the direct benefit of not having to throw away a charger when you acquire a new gadget that isn’t compatible with it.
There isn’t much of an advantage there. Because televisions, computers, and printers are heavy and include a lot of material and weight,
the vast majority of the electronics [households] waste in the United States are heavy and contain a lot of material and weight.
So, even though we’re throwing away a lot of phones, chargers, and other such items, they’re only a minor percentage of the overall waste stream.
That doesn’t always imply they aren’t at risk. They still include precious materials, such as copper and aluminum wiring, which we then coat in plastic, which presents its own set of issues.
The major benefit could be more indirect: this could potentially lead to a shift in consumer behavior.
If your charger still works, it’s a good sign that the product you have still worked and that you can use it for a little longer.
Also, there may be an indirect advantage from consumers continuing to fix and extend the life of the items and components they already own, which is a mentality adjustment.
HOW CAN HIGHER STANDARDIZATION HAVE THE INDIRECT BENEFIT OF EXTENDING THE LIFE SPAN OF ELECTRONIC DEVICES?
If you want to repair or recycle electronics, you can use standardized components because all of the parts are the same.
We have a huge bench in my lab full of screwdrivers and tools of all sizes, shapes, and varieties since that’s what we need to get to the components inside electronics.
The reason for this is that there is no design standardization, which means that if you’re a company trying to work in the reuse and recycling areas,
you’ll have to spend more on personnel, expenditures, and supplies to perform the truly valuable work.
We know that standardizing parts, components, and labeling can help us achieve a variety of “circular economy” objectives.
The circular economy concept is that we want to keep resources in use for as long as possible: we want to reduce the number of resources we pull from the Earth and the amount of garbage we eventually return to nature.
CAN A UNIVERSAL CHARGING STANDARD STYMIE TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS BE IMPLEMENTED?
There is a delicate balance to be struck between embracing the environmental benefits that may result from technological advancement and adhering to what we know to be extremely strong and effective circular economy design approaches.
Because technology advancement can give a lot of benefit on its own, solutions [such as standardization] must be agile enough to respond to it.
And the transition in the television industry is a fantastic example of this. People were discarding the enormous,
boxy cathode-ray-tube televisions twenty years ago, which resulted in an increase in electronic trash in the United States.
They’re bulky, contain a lot of dangerous material (some contain up to five pounds [2.3 kilograms] of lead per television), and are difficult to recycle.
With the flat-panel technology we have now, you can achieve a bigger, better display that consumes a lot less energy and has a lot fewer materials if you look forward to where we are now.
WHAT EXAMPLES OF EFFECTIVE E-WASTE REGULATIONS ARE THERE?
There are a variety of approaches you might take to do this. You may, for example, set goals for recycled content and recyclability.
In comparison to the European Union, the United States normally takes a more voluntary approach.
The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, is a good illustration of this, as it was developed by stakeholders from throughout the electronics industry.
The goal was to develop a set of rating systems that could be used to assess the design of electronic items in terms of how recyclable or sustainable they were.
So, for example, choosing recycled-content material over new material or making the product easily repairable, among many other tactics, producers earn credit.
Many institutions in the United States, including the federal government, universities, businesses, and municipalities, have written into their purchasing criteria that any electronics purchased must have a particular degree of certification from the [EPEAT] rating system.
Even though it is a voluntary process, there was business pressure on manufacturers to participate and produce goods that are more environmentally friendly.
The management of discarded electronics and electronic trash is extremely complicated, and no single policy will be able to cover all of it properly.
It will require a deliberate effort involving different stakeholders. The role of policy is crucial.
The manufacturers play a vital role. At the same time, we must invest in the development of innovative recycling technologies.
We need to change the manner that products are repaired. In addition, we must educate customers on how to effectively participate in the system.
That’s what it’ll take to attain true circular economy goals in the electronics industry.