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Electronic 'Waste' on the Rise - 2002-05-31


Today's high speed of innovation is leading to rapid product obsolescence. By the year 2004, experts estimate there will be over 315 million obsolete computers in the United States. This is causing concern among environmentalists and a call for "producer responsibility."

In the past, "producer responsibility" has referred primarily to a manufacturer's obligation to make a product that worked effectively.

But Gary Davis, the Director of the University of Tennessee's Center for Clean Technology says "producer responsibility" means something different today.

"That is a principle that producers bear a degree of responsibility for the environmental impacts of the product throughout its life cycle all the way from extraction of raw materials to manufacturing the product, to its use and its ultimate disposition," he said. "The design of the product is a very important factor in the pollution that is produced during that life cycle."

Computers and other electronics, for example, contain all sorts of toxic materials, like lead. Bury all those obsolete computers in landfills, Gary Davis says, and you could pollute ground water. Burn them and you could release toxins into the air.

"Now we recognize the potential problem and we're trying to design that out," he said. "Some Japanese companies have started producing computers that are lead free. We (the Center for Clean Technology) are actually doing a study now on alternatives to lead in electronics products to look at the whole life cycle of the substitute and compare the impacts to those of lead."

At Rochester Institute of Technology's Remanufacturing Center Professor Nabil Nasr is dealing with the same problem in a slightly different way. He is trying to come up with new ways to re-use the parts of obsolete electronics so they don't have to be discarded.

"We would like to capture this material back and put it back into use," he said. "In the office environment, companies like Xerox have excelled in taking old copiers and bringing them back to like-new condition and salvaging all the value."

Mr. Nasr says the automobile industry is also doing this quite successfully revitalizing old auto engines and alternators as replacement parts. He says the Kodak Company's new disposable camera exemplifies the goals of "remanufacturing."

"After you take the camera to a lab to develop the pictures, the camera itself goes back to Eastman Kodak for disassembly and each component is cleaned and inspected and it's fed back to the assembly line that makes the cameras, he said. "You end up using some of those components nine times."

Life cycle product design and remanufacturing two new ways of dealing with the new but growing problem of electronic waste.

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