The hidden e-waste problem, smart clothing

Even though components in electronics-enabled textiles are much smaller than (say) a TV, they will pose a large disposal challenge within the current waste management system.

At any given moment, I have a bag hanging in my closet to hold clothing that my husband and I have managed to outgrow (mentally or physically). Anything that is still in decent shape gets passed along to one of the various organizations that accept gently worn clothing so it has a chance of being reused. So it was with interest that I read a recent article from the Journal of Industrial Ecology that explores a question that most of us probably haven't thought about enough: What happens with "smart" clothing or other smart textile items when you're ready to hand them down or pass them on?

As the article points out, so-called electronic textiles -- clothing or other fabrics that contain electronic components capable of monitoring health, controlling lights, collecting solar charges -- are beginning to enter society.

An example might be a heart monitor sewn into the pocket of a vest or sheets with RFID chips that track a patient's whereabouts in a healthcare facility and offer data about that patient's conditions. A more specialized application might include a firefighter's suit, with sensors for heat monitoring, a navigation system and so on. A mass market application might include an outdoor jacket with integrated solar cells to keep various electronic gadgets charged.

These sorts of developments clearly offer very useful applications, however, very little attention has been paid to how these items will be managed at the end of their life. What little research has been done suggests that the smart components within clothing aren't appropriate for existing recycling processes, according to the article's authors. This is a brand-new electronic waste problem. If we can't throw computers or monitors or other technology into landfills, why should we assume that smart textiles are exempt? These components may be small, but they are numerous. The article's primary authors, researchers and professors from several different universities in the Netherlands and Switzerland, suggest that e-waste of this sort could amount to approximately 1 million tons per year.

They write:

"Contemporary electronic products usually have rather short service lives. There is no reason to assume that e-textiles will break with that trend. On the contrary, their obsolesce may even be accelerated due to fleeting fashion trends in the apparel sector. One can expect that old e-textiles will cause large waste streams similar to today's e-waste."

The primary focus of the discussion is on encouraging better design of e-textiles before they come more prevalent in the marketplace and on envisioning how they might ultimately be disposed of or recycled.

Here are two concerns that the article's authors highlight: 1) What should be done with conductive fibers and yarns that contain silver, copper or nickel? Will textiles jam shredders or crushers? 2) Will batteries cause laundering challenges (contaminating water) and can they be removed when the garment or textile has reached its end of life?

The article suggests that e-textiles will be difficult to process within the existing system, which makes it even more important to consider the following during the design process: 1) Make sure the garment can be used for a long time 2) Consider whether components can be easily removed

Since recycling legislation hasn't managed to keep up with concerns such as these, the article suggests it will be up to industrial designers to lead the way when it comes to green engineering and design innovation. Otherwise, e-textiles could be an even larger concern than the emerging e-waste problem.