'Tis the season to recycle electronics

It would be really easy to fill up this blog with releases and green-tech-announcements-du-jour, a strategy I admit I use sometimes when I am traveling or way too overwhelmed to think. But usually, I try to take the pulse of the topics that are dominant in a given week and to provide perspective on more than one thing simultaneously.

It would be really easy to fill up this blog with releases and green-tech-announcements-du-jour, a strategy I admit I use sometimes when I am traveling or way too overwhelmed to think. But usually, I try to take the pulse of the topics that are dominant in a given week and to provide perspective on more than one thing simultaneously. Even as early as Monday it was pretty obvious to me that a lot of people have electronic waste (aka e-waste) on their mind, especially as we enter that period of American consumerism called holiday gift shopping. That's because when people buy new things, they tend to dump the old things, often with very little regard as to the impact.

But some people aren't being quiet about this. On Tuesday, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition premiered a movie called "The Story of Electronics," which is an 8-minute animated "story" about why we should advocate for more environmentally conscious design by the electronics industry. The movie is part of The Story of Stuff project, which is being produced by Free Range Studios in conjunction with organizations concerned about sustainability issues. They've done "stories" about cap-and-trade, cosmetics and bottled water.

Here is the obligatory advocacy statement from Ted Smith, who is the chairman of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition:

"Most of our electronics are laden with problematic substances like lead, mercury, PVC, and brominated flame retardants, so when they break it's not just a bummer, it's a global toxic issue. Instead of shipping our toxic trash across the world, product takeback ensures that electronics companies--not individual consumers, our governments, or worse, some poor guy in China--take responsibility for the stuff they put on the shelves."

A couple of other non-governmental organizations and non-profits have piggybacked their own initiatives atop the release of the film. For example, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is touting a documentary called "Citizens at Risk," a short documentary (13 minutes) that summarizes the potential impact of irresponsible e-waste handling policies.

The Center for Environmental Health, meanwhile, has launched a Web site for sustainable electronics, which guides businesses through best practices for procuring environmentally preferable electronics and computing technology.

I considered these developments in the context of a conversation that I had yesterday with Aaron Engel-Hall, a Stanford University graduate student who recently completed a research project into the feasibility of creating a fully recyclable notebook computer.

Engel-Hall says his team was intrigued by convention notebook computer design and how difficult it is to disassemble most products on the market today. The graduate students, who hailed from both Stanford and Finland's Aalto University, used Autodesk Inventor software to design and prototype a very different sort of notebook design that they refer to as Bloom. The idea is that the entire notebook, if it actually existed, could be taken apart and disposed of separately and appropriately, according to the materials in a given component.

"We wanted to show that this device is feasible. Foremost on our minds was not creating a laptop that we could bring to someone and that they could make, that probably won't happen, but we really wanted to create documentation and offer insights as to how you could make a product like a notebook more green," says Engel-Hall.

Here's a video of Engel-Hall demonstrating how it would take about two minutes to take apart a Bloom laptop versus the 45 minutes needed to take apart a commercially available laptop.

The reason notebook design is so important, of course, is that so many people are buying them. And upgrading them, which is even more important. While there has been a great deal of attention paid to desktop design and upgradability (the ability to swap things in and out), the main focus for notebooks has been portability and weight.

Something to remember as you think about blowing through those fourth quarter budgets so that you don't lose the money next year. How will you dispose of all those laptops that you're replacing?

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