By 2018, the world will be throwing out 50 million metric tons of gizmos. Only a sixth of these tossed gizmos will be properly recycled. One reason for this high disposal rate occurs before the product even hits the shelf – it starts in the design phase.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, technology designers have started constructing gizmos that are slimmer, leaner, and more compact than ever before. This trend is satiating consumer cravings for lightweight devices. More and more, electronic users are demanding designs that ignore the bulky but reparable ones of the past. The body of the iPhone has gotten slimmer and lighter with each new release. Microsoft’s Surface Pros are engineering miracles with their extremely petite look. Consumers want their gizmos to be as streamlined as possible for numerous benefits. A leaner construction makes electronics easier to transport, store, and carry, reducing the burden of having your devices with you so frequently.
While aesthetically pleasing, this svelte technology design means needing to change the internal construction, the area that most customers don’t have to see. To achieve the look, screens are cemented down, pieces are interlocked together, and all the internal parts are forced to fit into an extremely tight space.
The most troublesome aspect, though, is the amount of glue that is now utilized. Instead of the standard screws that were once universally depended on, adhesives are used to affix pieces. Companies have even started to glue down batteries, making it a delicate and nearly impossible task when it comes to replacing them.
The changes in internal construction leave little thought for an end-of-life scenario. Glued batteries create a predetermined lifespan. Since the batteries are so hard to replace, it is often easier for the customer to buy an entirely new device than pay to have it properly replaced by the manufacturing company. Therefore, devices become obsolete and disposed of much faster because they are not able to be upgraded without the help from the manufacturer.
The iPod was the first device to introduce the glued battery concept in 2001, and ever since, other gizmos have continued the trend, including laptops, such as the popular Retina MacBook Pro, and tablets. Tablets are notorious for using an excessive amount of glue in the manufacturing process, making them extremely difficult to disassemble overall. In turn, they are one of the hardest devices to recycle.
Relying on so much adhesive makes the likelihood of recycling particularly difficult. All glue would need to be carefully removed before any melting down can even begin to occur. However, recyclers first have to cautiously dismantle the gizmo, where chances of something cracking or breaking are already high due to the amount of glass. According to Christina Bonnington of Wired, “other things that can make a product more challenging to recycle include the number of screws (particularly non-standard screws), the inclusion of hazardous materials like mercury (which is declining, due to the rising popularity of LEDs instead of bulbs), large amounts of glass, and plastics. Waterproof and tightly sealed products also are more arduous to deal with.” Of course, batteries that have been sealed to their coverings also require more energy to prepare for recycling.
For recycling companies, it is oftentimes not worth the time, energy, and money it takes to dismantle today’s gizmos when the amount of recyclable materials they yield are low. If the trend is to continue, recycling companies won’t be able to make a profit.
So, what’s the solution?
For one, technology designers need to become green designers. They have to look at the entire life cycle, especially the end-of-life stage, in order to reduce the amount of waste that their company is inadvertently responsible for. Technology needs to be designed to last for multiple years and have the possibility of future repairs. To do this, gizmos should revert back to using universally accessible screws instead of using custom built ones. Companies can also draw back on the amount of glue they use and put less space restraints on their products.
This responsibility also falls to consumers as well. Consumers need to be more aware of where their devices end up. By being more knowledgeable about the problem, they can better prepare their devices when they are done with them. Of course, recycling them might not be the only answer. If the device still has value, they can list it to sell on resale markets like the MyGizmo app, which earns them money and extends the life of their device by putting it in the hands of a new user.
Technology designers should not prioritize the company’s bottom line by designing their products with a purposeful end. A greener mentality needs to take precedence for designers, not be an afterthought, in order to truly make a change in the technology industry.