As you may have heard, there have been some pretty big ups and downs in the wonderful world of recycling. Apple just announced that their future products will be made from 100% recycled materials. Fairphone started with laudable goals, but they recently tried and failed to corporately sustain their greener, fairer, and “repairable-by-design” smart phone. And Samsung is actively promising to “make good” on their plans to recycle their massive Galaxy Note 7 recall. You win some and you lose some. Either way, we’re in it to make a long-term difference.
But discard culture remains king, especially when it comes to our personal and mobile devices. It’s time for new innovative recycling measures.
Statistics: Read ‘em and
Weep Do Something
Years 2014 and 2015 produced approximately 41 billion tons of e-waste each—that’s 82 billion collectively if you didn’t want to do the math. And if that’s not bad enough, Waste Management World’s global report found that less than 16% of that tonnage was properly recycled or reused. Their predictions for 2017 continue to climb, coming in at a staggering 50 million [projected] tons. If recycling endeavors continue at the same deplorable rate, only 8 million of those anticipated tons will even see the inside of a recycling center.
More specifically, mobile statistics show that many people only use their phones for 18-24 months before upgrading to a newer model. After these upgrades, 70% of the “outdated” cellphones could be reused1, but only 14-17% of them are actually recycled. Consequently, it’s estimated that 140 million mobile phones will land themselves in a landfill this year.
Now, we don’t need to browbeat you with how much of a global hazard e-waste poses with its heavy metals, hazardous chemicals, and conflict materials. But despite its obvious environmental, political, and ethical implications, we continue to allow technological waste to gain destructive momentum.
Clearly, recycling is not the ultimate answer to our e-waste woes.
But maybe we’re approaching the issue from the wrong side of the process. Rather than wait for the waste to come to us, why not intercept the waste before it’s ever produced? Enter Stanford research.
Breaking it Down with Biodegradable Tech
The sad state of America’s e-waste recycling initiatives has irked researchers at Stanford University for long enough. As such, Stanford engineer Zehnan Bao and her team have accepted the challenge of rethinking technology, and they’re doing it in a markedly organic way. “In my group,” Bao says, “we have been trying to mimic the function of human skin to think about how to develop future electronic devices.”
Your skin is the body’s largest—and most easily observed—organ. Take another look at it and consider its properties. Both flexible and self-healing by nature, your skin also happens to be easily biodegradable. We know it’s an unpleasant thought, but consider the implications of such a building material. If these attributes could be grafted into our current mobile technology—and other industries as well—there would be little need for recycling centers in the future2.
The Organics of Tech Talk
Bao and her team admitted that creating a “robust material that is both a good electrical conductor and biodegradable” was a tall order. They obviously couldn’t have the devices melting against the warmth of a human body or dissolving with increased moisture. But once the researchers found that they could tweak the chemical structure of the polymers to allow them to break down only under controlled, yet mild, stressors, they had their answer.
“We came up with an idea of making these molecules using a special type of chemical linkage that can retain the ability for the electron to smoothly transport along the molecule,” says Bao, but they also formulated the semiconductive polymers to break down into nontoxic constituents once introduced to a weak acid like vinegar. Bao and her team assert that their skin-like technology can eventually be utilized in a broad spectrum of industries. They foresee a future in wearable tech, healthcare censorship, and “large-scale environmental surveys with sensor dusts,” to name a few.
Ting Lei, a postdoctoral fellow who works with Bao, said excitedly, “We currently [generate] millions and billions of cell phones [and computers], and [they’re] hard to decompose. We hope we can develop some materials that can be decomposed so there is less waste.”
Technology with an Organic Life Cycle
Here at Apto Solutions, we hope for the same future that Lei envisions. Just imagine the possibilities of intrinsically recyclable mobile tech. In this hopeful future, discard culture can continue without the debilitating reality that e-waste is today, thanks to inventors and visionaries like Bao and her team who turn global issues on their head through their passion and innovation.
We Don’t Live in the Biodegradable Future, Yet.
If you need help with properly managing the lifecycle of your mobile devices, we can help. We’ll manage the deployment and return logistics, data destruction, disposal or even repair and repurposing.