This week’s Economist has an excellent special report on waste, entitled Talking Rubbish. It contains the usual Economist savaging of government decision-making and bureaucracy but more importantly some very interesting news on waste management around the world. Worth the read (or the listen if you are, like me, a guilty addict of the measured tones of the Economist audio edition).
One thing that leapt out at me was a story about Hewlett-Packard’s experience of recycling:
Hewlett-Packard (HP), which makes lots of electronic devices that are subject to such rules, says it welcomes them. It has always tried to design its products not just from cradle to grave, a spokesman explains, but from cradle to cradle—meaning with recycling in mind. Its laptops are 90% recyclable and its printers at least 70%. By last year HP had recycled over 450,000 tonnes of used equipment. It aims to double that figure by the end of next year. At its facility in Roseville, California, workers first check discarded computers and printers to see if they can be re-used: it refurbishes 2.5m devices a year. The rest are taken to bits. First the big, accessible parts are removed, along with anything dangerous, and then heavy-duty shredders grind up the remainder into tiny pieces that can be sorted by standard recycling equipment.
An engineer explains how a decade of such work has taught HP how to make the process simpler and cheaper. It now uses screws instead of glues wherever possible, and has reduced the number of different kinds of plastic in its products from 200 to five. It plans to eliminate one more—polyvinyl chloride—from new computer models this year. It is proud of having closed the loop on ink cartridges for its printers, which it now makes from old cartridges.
But the firm would like to go further, designing computers so that they can be easily upgraded rather than replaced. Ultimately, says Chandrakant Patel, who heads its “sustainable IT ecosystems laboratory”, modern computer systems will allow firms to calculate the precise disposal costs of a product during the design phase and include them in the sale price. More sophisticated products will also warn users when they are about to fail, eliminating the need for spare capacity.
As if the innovation afforded by making technologies tinkerable wasn’t a good enough reason to promote technology that you can take apart. Making technology tinkerable also makes it more recyclable and recycling is arguably the most efficient way to deal with waste. How cool is that?