Illinois Sustainable Technology Center - University of Illinois

Adapting Ecological Models for Linking Sustainable Production and Consumption Dynamics in Consumer Electronic Product Systems

Presented by Dr. Callie Babbitt, Assistant Professor, Golisano Institute for Sustainability, Rochester Institute of Technology

September 19, 2012

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The growing integration of consumer electronics in daily modern society poses a myriad of sustainability challenges. On one hand, consumer electronic devices contribute to social and economic development and may be key to reducing energy consumption across many sectors of the economy. However, the toxic and valuable materials embedded within the products may cause both positive economic and social benefits (e.g., recovery of valuable materials and jobs) and negative environmental and human health impacts (e.g., related to informal recycling and disposal operations). While the production and operation of individual devices is becoming more energy efficient, rebound effects from the overall increasing number of products owned may be increasing rather than decreasing environmental impacts. Conventional sustainable production practices and policies based on product-based analyses are unable to effectively capture energy, material, and economic flows because consumers purchase, use, and discard a group of electronics such as desktops, laptops, printers, mobile phones, and digital cameras. Therefore, the consumer electronic product system's net sustainability impact is unclear and in need of tools to help decision makers and consumers with sustainable production, purchasing decisions, and end of life management.

Research getting underway at RIT is aimed at developing a better understanding of the linkage between production and consumption dynamics of group of rapidly evolving electronic products in order to manage them more effectively. To this end, we are building a new research framework adapted from models of community and population ecology and operationalized for test cases in household consumer electronics. This presentation will provide an overview of this research framework and present initial results that characterize how the structure of a "community" of household electronics changes over time and what that change means for environmental metrics like life cycle energy demand.

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