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Ecological engineering could help the electronics industry make more recycling-friendly equipment.

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.

Ink-Jet Research

Economic viability is at the heart of the MIT researchers’ early efforts to change industry practices. Gutowski recently completed his first research project-studying ink-jet printers-with Brianne Metzger, SM ‘03, SM ‘03, a graduate of MIT’s Leaders for Manufacturing program. As part of a 2002 summer internship with Hewlett-Packard, Metzger, with Gutowski as one of her advisors, designed software that calculates the percentage of recyclable material in ink-jet printers, so that manufacturers can conform to the new European Union recycling laws. The software asks the designers a series of 35 questions about the material composition of their products-for example, whether the plastics used are painted (painted plastics can be difficult or nearly impossible to recycle). Or it might ask about the size of the circuit board: under EU recycling requirements, the circuit board must be smaller than 10 centimeters squared. Anything larger must be pulled out of the computer. “This requires a disassembly step which is labor-intensive,” Gutowski explains. “So one thing you might do in your design is have itty-bitty circuit boards or have one big one, but you’ve got to think about the accessibility of the circuit board.” Gutowski and Metzger hope that this program will get designers thinking about these issues from the start.

And it’s in the companies’ best interest to stay in the European market for electronic goods, which was estimated to be around $50 billion in 2003. Gutowski’s work with Hewlett-Packard is just the beginning of what he predicts will be a large-scale movement toward recycling considerations in product design before the European laws go into effect in 2006. “I want to give the proper feedback to companies, so they can improve their design,” Gutowski says. “When we implement this, we put in place the right kind of cost incentives.”

Field and Kirchain are looking more generally at economic models for industrial ecology. Since summer 2003 the two have visited some half-dozen recyclers on the East Coast to gather data-both past and present-on what sorts of electronic materials have been collected and what percentage of them are extracted and recycled. They then plug this data into economic models to try to determine whether recycling can be economically viable.

The researchers believe that recycling works best when it is a consequence of market demand for recycled products, rather than the result of regulation. The combination of product design and recycling technology that would encourage recycling is not always obvious, but any long-term solution will depend upon discovering and developing it.

Teaching a New Mindset

In the long run, the economic issues of recycling will become a big part of engineering education. MIT’s engineering systems division is tackling them: instead of just looking at how products are used, it considers them from start to finish-and that includes recycling. Field and Kirchain, along with Joel Clark, ScD ‘72, SM ‘75 , teach this holistic perspective to their students in Industrial Ecology, a class that incorporates life-cycle analysis and introduces tools engineers can use to design for end-of-life recycling.

Gutowski is teaching a new course this year called Environmentally Benign Manufacturing. He and Field, Kirchain, and Clark confer on how to teach the course and how to tackle recurring issues. While Industrial Ecology might offer specific design tools, Gutowski’s class also looks at long-term system engineering and even philosophical approaches to the environment and an engineer’s responsibility to it.

“This is just the beginning,” Gutowski says. “This whole area of industrial ecology started just a couple of years ago. We’re trying to do the science to find out what’s going on. Sometimes I think when I teach my students I’m talking to them more as citizens than engineers, because they have to be informed as citizens to solve the problem.”

And as the mountains of outdated computers continue to grow, the need to responsibly recycle them will become even more urgent.

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