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Getting a Handle on E-Waste

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 5:01pm
Eric Austermann, VP, Social & Environmental Responsibility, Jabil

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According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 2.5 million tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, is produced each year in the United States. Globally, electronics represent the fastest-growing waste stream in many countries. Toxic materials in electronics discarded in landfills and dumps can leach into soil and water and potentially harm people salvaging materials found in electronics products. When incinerated at low temperatures, these materials can also emit toxins.

Addressing this complex issue calls for a multi-pronged approach. Companies that provide electronics manufacturing services (EMS), particularly aftermarket services, are in an ideal position to promote reuse and refurbishment of devices and components to keep them out of landfills and incinerators. They can also play an important role in recycling electronics and managing asset recovery from manufacturing scrap.

For example, some companies are committed to a proactive global strategy on social and environmental responsibility that holds all regions and locations to the same standards. It is a more challenging approach to environmental management than a site-by-site process, but it means delivering more-consistent results at a higher standard, lowering our risk and that of our customers.

As part of their Global initiative, companies can implemented several worldwide best practices for managing e-waste, including developing innovative refurbishment technologies, leveraging the growing secondary market for used components and devices, serving as a consignment center for excess telecommunications parts and overseeing a rigorous vendor management system to ensure responsible disposal of scrap.

Emphasizing Reuse and Resale

Globally, Electronics Reuse & Recycling programs are becoming a part of repair and warranty services offerings. Customers, which include many top electronics makers, send defective or damaged products to a manufacturing & design partner for service. To increase the percentage of devices that can be repaired, companies like Jabil Circuit Inc. create their own, proprietary technologies such as a special polishing compound for removing scratches from liquid crystal display (LCD) touch screens. In another example, a company can apply a plastic overlay to the back of set-top boxes to cover scratches that can occur during installation by the consumer or develop unique diagnostic tools and tests that make it easier to pinpoint issues quickly and cost-effectively.

Products and components not under warranty can be evaluated according to an “intelligent repair” standard to determine if refurbishing the product for resale in secondary markets or removing key components such as the board and selling the remainder as scrap makes more sense. 

According to Michael Czarnota, senior director of asset recovery services at Jabil, companies like Jabil have made steady progress in reuse of devices – from about 14 percent to 30 percent. For example, at the end of 2011, Jabil’s plant in Szombathely, Hungary, saved 21 metric tons of e-waste from being sent to a landfill or incinerator. The company estimates they will save 350 metric tons of e-waste per year.

Managing Electronic Scrap Disposal

Another key aspect of e-waste management is disposal or disposition of scrap from the manufacturing process. The precious metals in scrap electronics are sought after by vendors around the world. However, this sector is highly fragmented and constantly changing, raising the risk of irresponsible extraction processes and disposal practices that could negatively impact companies reputation and that of its customers.

As they have done with component suppliers, companies can create a rigorous, end-to-end methodology for selecting a small group of scrap vendors. The process includes identifying the best companies, qualifying them against a set of environmental standards, routinely auditing them and eliminating any that do not continue to meet high expectations set by each company. They pay close attention to the way plastics and other materials remaining after metals have been removed. In some cases, they are turned into useful products such as park benches. A company can also evaluate vendor compliance with national laws regarding shipment of scrap across borders. For global standardization, each facility should commit to this program and use vendors only from the approved list.

This program is not about making profits. Although many companies want to sell their scrap to the highest bidder, you can often find that vendors offering top prices may be skimping on environmental compliance to save money.

Conclusion

E-waste is a huge and growing problem for our planet, and particularly for communities located near landfills and incineration facilities. Companies are continuing to develop new programs, methodologies and techniques for extending the usability of electronics and overseeing the proper disposal of products and materials that have truly reached the end of their useful life.

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