Illinois Sustainable Technology Center - University of Illinois

Electronic Waste: Our Problem and What We Should Do About It

Presented by William Bullock and Joy Scrogum

September 5, 2012

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E-waste, which is discarded electronics such as old computers and cell phones, is evidence of our current wasteful habits driven by unquenchable consumption in Western society for over 250 years. This consumption has diminished natural resources and brought about environmental degradation because the majority of discarded or "recycled" electronic products winds up in landfills or ground up as scrap. This linear one-way system is particularly wasteful when one considers the lost embedded energy needed to manufacture memory chips and the loss of precious (and rare) metals and other valuable components. Dumping our e-waste on other world neighbors is also questionable on ethical grounds. The current electronics manufacturing and consumption system is not sustainable over time. A new model of sustainable consumption is needed based on a closed loop system that minimizes or eliminates the concept of waste. Experts in manufacturing, business, engineering, and design must work together to innovate new sustainable solutions. As informed consumers, we can also do much to promote the move to a more sustainable system by making wise choices in our purchase, use, and disposal of electronics. In response to the need to nurture development of a more sustainable system, the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) was established to promote development of the sustainable design, production, recycling and continued use and reuse electronic devices.

SEI is geared toward conducting and sponsoring research, as well as integrating principles of sustainability into the curricula and educational experiences of engineers, industrial designers, computer scientists and others involved in the design, manufacture, and consumption of electronic products. Research projects involving repurposing of used electronic components and investigations into consumer behavior will be briefly described, as well as a major educational component of SEI, the International E-Waste Design Competition.

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