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Thomas speaks on how Smart Trash reinvents computer waste recycling

Posted April 18, 2011 | Atlanta, GA

The concept of Smart Trash as an innovative way to encourage a cradle-to-grave approach to handling electronic products was presented on April 15th at an event hosted by the Embassy of the United States of America in Wellington, New Zealand.

Two presenters, one from Georgia Tech and the other from US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington DC, joined the Wellington event by videoconference to discuss a new approach to tackling the global e-waste problem.

Dr Valerie Thomas is the Anderson Interface Associate Professor of Natural Systems in the Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering with a joint appointment in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech.  She has been researching the concept of Smart Trash for a number of years and believes that the time is right for electronic products to take ‘self responsibility’.  “Product stewardship encourages suppliers to take responsibility for their own products at end of life, but I believe we can go even further and get the products to take more responsibility for themselves,” she said.   “The secret is to attach the Universal Product Code (UPC) barcode or RFID (radio frequency identification) tag to the product itself, as opposed to the packaging which is typically discarded as soon as the product is installed.”  She cited a successful application with mobile phones in Europe where the data in the barcode recorded full details of the materials used in manufacture, reducing costs when the phones are sent for recycling.

Dr Thomas pointed out the costs of applying RFID tags at the point of manufacture have dropped to as low as US 5 cents, so there is no cost barrier to widespread implementation, even on low value items. “Once implemented, lots of new options become available for efficiently managing the re-use, refurbishment or recycling of the products,” she said. “But most importantly, it will make the disposal of electronic trash easy for the end consumer and even open up the possibility of a cash return.  With cash incentives and user-friendliness, consumers are much more likely to start disposing of their electronic waste in a responsible and environment-friendly manner.”

Angie Leith from EPA provided the background to the development of RFID as a possible technology for tracking electronic products at end of life as well as for the distribution of new products to retailers.  “We started studying RFID technologies in 2002 to help us understand any possible negative effects on the environment, but now see them as a possible tool for managing waste streams and increasing the levels of recycling.  In the USA in 2009, only 15% of the electronic equipment entering the waste stream  was recycled and our goal is to achieve recycling rates much closer to the national average for other materials (33%), or even higher,” she said.

“Twenty-five percent of the states in America now have legislation covering e-waste, with many banning electronic waste in landfills.  We are relying on technology innovations such as RFID to help us implement better e-waste solutions on a nationwide basis,” Ms Leith said.   But she did point out that this will rely on computer companies attaching RFID tags to their products at the point of manufacture. “While we will do everything we can to encourage this, we do not envisage a legislative solution at this stage,” she concluded.

“Efficient and convenient collection and disposal systems are critical for successful e-waste recycling, but it is important that the mechanisms are also in place to transport the recovered materials into new manufacturing processes,” said Laurence Zwimpfer, Chair of the eDay New Zealand Trust, and MC for the Smart Trash discussion. “This presents a special challenge for New Zealand, because of our geographic isolation from the main manufacturing nations in Asia and Europe.  We still have to pay to get extracted materials to these markets.  We find the Smart Trash approach very interesting and will certainly encourage manufacturers to start tagging their products, but we believe there will still be a net cost to achieve sustainable e-waste recycling in New Zealand.  We will continue to press for product stewardship schemes to be put in place in New Zealand with supporting government regulations to ensure all suppliers participate equitably in covering these costs,” he said.

The eDay New Zealand Trust was formed in 2010 to focus on the development of sustainable solutions for the recycling of electronic waste in New Zealand and the Pacific.  It took over running the annual eDay, free e-waste recycling event in New Zealand, which in 2010 saw nearly 20,000 cars dropping off over 80,000 items of electronic waste, filling over 160 20’ shipping containers. 

The Public Affairs Section of the Embassy of the United States of America arranges videoconference presentations from time to time on matters of public interest.

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