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In February 2002, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Basel Action Network, watchdog groups that monitor the environmental practices of the high-tech industry, issued a report that described what happens to old computer and electronics equipment in the United States. Little gets recycled, the report claimed, and in many cases the waste is shipped to foreign countries, where its toxic materials-mercury from switches, lead from soldering, brominated flame retardants from plastics, and even toner from ink-jet printers-seep into the soil. The report was an embarrassment to many big American computer manufacturers and highlighted an increasingly important issue. As companies manufacture more high-tech products at a faster pace, where do the old products go?

The world’s leading high-tech companies are starting to take an interest in where their products end up. In February 2003 the European Union passed a series of laws that require the manufacturers of electronic components to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, including their “end of life”-or recycling-phase. Japan has laws requiring manufacturers to oversee the recycling of their products. And to date, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 23 states have active or pending legislation that will regulate the recycling of electronic equipment, although most will put the burden on the consumer, not the manufacturer. These policies are an incentive for manufacturers to design products that are easier to recycle. But the effort really requires a shift in education to help future engineers think about designs that facilitate recycling and to encourage  researchers to come up with economic incentives that will persuade companies to participate. MIT, not surprisingly, has been a part of this industrial-ecology movement, offering courses that support research on the economics of recycling in manufacturing.

Ecological Engineering

The fast-growing field of ecological engineering has emerged to address electronics-recycling issues in education and industry. “We certainly have the goal as engineers to design new manufacturing processes to move on to environmentally benign manufacturing,” says MIT mechanical engineering professor Tim Gutowski, PhD ‘81. “But we first need to figure out what will work and what doesn’t. People have been studying productivity of manufacturing for over 100 years, and now we need to study it with a completely different perspective.”

Gutowski’s own journey into recycling began four years ago in Japan when the National Science Foundation asked him to be on a panel to study environmentally benign manufacturing in that country, the European Union, and the United States. The other members of the panel were engineers who had done previous work in the environmental sciences, but Gutowski had not; he was asked, he says, because he headed MIT’s Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity. In Japan he saw inspiring evidence of progress in the movement toward industrial ecology, such as a new approach to recycling PVC-the hazardous plastic polyvinyl chloride-and the methodical way in which some big companies, such as Toyota, were adopting more environmentally responsible practices. Ultimately, he became the panel’s chair, and as he puts it, “I got so revved up, I said, This is what I’m going to do!’” So after 17 years of studying advanced composite materials, such as the graphite fiber composites used by the aerospace industry, Gutowski shifted to investigating whether materials used in manufacturing can ultimately be recycled. Since then he has been examining the “big picture” of what it means to encourage a paradigm shift in the manufacturing industry; he recently received a National Science Foundation grant to look specifically at the environmental impacts of manufacturing processes.

Randy Kirchain, PhD ‘99, and Frank Field ‘78, SM ‘81, PhD ‘85, turned their attention to electronic recycling last summer when they broadened their lab’s decade-long focus on the automotive industry to include the electronics industry. “After 10 years of looking at ways that automobiles could be manufactured to be more recyclable when stripped, we decided to see if there were other industries that had interesting innovations in the area of environmentally driven design,” Kirchain explains.

Kirchain and Field believe that thinking about recycling has to start on the drawing board, and Gutowski agrees. “Right now,” he says, “if you ask the average engineer where their product ends up, they haven’t a clue. To have a complete view of the recycling potential of a product, you have to start in manufacturing.” By investigating how product and process design can influence the costs of recycling, the MIT scientists are hoping to assist companies to comply with the laws already on the books.

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