Check your home trash can and you’ll probably find a confusing mess with chargers for electronic devices – many of which are probably obsolete. Late last week, the European Union proposed a new regulation that would address this issue by requiring all small electronics (including phones, tablets, portable speakers and cameras) to have the same type of charging port. All such electronics sold in the EU would have to switch to the USB-C standard within two years.
European officials claim that this universal standard not only increases convenience for consumers, but also reduces the amount of e-waste. Critics of such measures, including Apple, which uses its own port to charge its phones, argue that the move will stifle innovation. And if USB-C inevitably gives way to the next improved charging method, people will still need to invest in new chargers. However, the real impact of this law may not be as simple as either party suggests.
“Based on what we know about what’s in the e-waste stream, the relative reduction in e-waste is likely to be relatively small because of the chargers alone,” said Kelly Babbitt, a professor of sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology. where she studies e-waste. “But I think the greater potential is that it’s a good test case for manufacturers to think about standardization and consumer-friendly design and then see if there’s an increase in emissions as technology changes or if we actually there is a reduction because consumers do not often replace products and chargers. Scientific American talked to Babbitt about the scale of the e-waste problem, how researchers want to solve it and whether this new rule is a step in the right direction.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How much e-waste do we throw away, and why is this a problem?
U.S. households throw away about two million tons of electronics a year. And it’s just households. If you start considering businesses, companies and industries, then it is estimated that their number could double. It is important to recycle, but less in terms of preventing hazards from entering the environment, because over time we have been able to successfully design many of these hazards. The problems with electronics that we discard are more related to what we throw away. We have invested huge resources in production: we have mined metals from all over the world, some of the most socially and environmentally vulnerable places. We have poured a lot of energy into processing these metals, manufacturing components and then assembling the products. [E-waste] really contains a lot of valuable things such as gold, rare earth elements, cobalt, lithium – things that are really important to our society. So when we throw away something instead of reusing or recycling it, we waste all those resources.
Or reduce the transition to a universal standard for charging electronic waste?
There are two potential benefits to this strategy. First, it is a direct benefit of [no longer] if you buy a new device, you will have to throw away the charger and it is more incompatible. The benefits there are relatively small. If you look at electronics [households] throw in the US, en masse, the vast majority of them are things like TVs, computers, printers – because these things are heavy and contain a lot of material and weight. So even though we give up a lot of phones, chargers and things like that, they actually make up a relatively small portion of the mass. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re harmless. They still contain valuable materials with wiring, which is often made of copper and aluminum, and then we cover them with plastic, which has its problems. The greater benefit may be more indirect: it could potentially change consumer behavior. If your charger is still working, perhaps this is also a sign that your product is still working and you can continue to use it longer. And perhaps there may be some indirect benefit to consumers who continue to repair and extend the life of the products and components they already have, which is a change of mindset.
How greater standardization can benefit this indirect benefit from extending the life of electronic devices?
With standardized components, if you want to repair or recycle electronics, all parts are the same. In my lab we have a huge bench full of screwdrivers and tools of all sizes, shapes and types because this is what is needed for actual access to the components inside the electronics. The reason for this is that there is no standardization of design at all, which means that if you are a company trying to work in the areas of reuse and recycling, you will have to spend more on labor, costs and materials to actually do so. really valuable work. We know that by standardizing parts, components, and labeling, we can achieve many of the goals of the “circular economy”. The idea of the circular economy is that we try to keep resources in use for as long as possible: we want to minimize the amount of resources we extract from Earth, and we want to minimize the amount of waste that we eventually return to nature.
Could a universal charging standard delay technical progress?
There is a balance between adopting environmental benefits that can bring technological progress, and at the same time follow what we know is a very strong and effective circular economy design practice. Solutions [such as standardization] must be agile enough to respond to technical progress, because this progress alone can be of great benefit. And a great example of this can be seen in the shifts in the television sector. Twenty years ago, electronic waste in the U.S. was growing because people were throwing out large square TVs with a cathode ray tube. They are extremely heavy, [with] many hazardous materials – some contain up to five pounds [2.3 kilograms] lead on TV – and very hard to recycle. And if you look forward to where we are now, you can get a bigger and better display that consumes much less energy and contains far less material in the flat panel technology we have now.
What are some examples of effective e-waste rules?
There are many different ways you can achieve this. [For instance], you can set goals related to recycled content and recycling. The US, compared to the EU, tends to take a more voluntary approach. And one good example of this is what’s called the Environmental Product Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, which was created by stakeholders that really cover the entire electronics sector. The idea was to come up with a set of rating systems to realistically evaluate the design of electronic products in terms of how recyclable they can be or how sustainable they are. Thus, manufacturers are credited, for example, for choosing material from recycled content over many other strategies rather than primary material, or for making the product readily available for repair. Many U.S. agencies — including at some point the federal government, as well as many universities, businesses, and municipalities — have actually written into their own procurement standards that any electronics purchased must have a certain level of certification from [EPEAT] rating system. Thus, although this is a voluntary mechanism, manufacturers have been pressured by business to be truly involved and develop products. [to be] more environmentally friendly.
Managing used electronics and e-waste is incredibly complex, and no policy will be able to effectively address all of this. In fact, a concerted effort involving several stakeholders will be required. Politics plays a key role. Manufacturers play a key role. But at the same time we also need to invest in the development of new recycling technologies. We need to change the way we repair products. And we need to teach consumers how to actually participate in the system. This is what it will take to really achieve the goals of the circular economy in electronics.