Environmental Sustainability in Manufacturing

Being in manufacturing for a long time, we’ve always had great concern about workers’ safety in the manufacturing of a product, but little visibility or regulation on what happens to the product and people that interact with it after the original consumer is done using it.

What I’m learning from my initial research is that we’re only seeing the first part of the overall supply chain. What happens to products post-consumer can be horrifying. We’ve seen the pictures of kids in China reverse soldering PCBAs, and of course landfills filled with old products. My hope with this piece is to build awareness of the entire supply chain and encourage our community to think about what happens to the product post-consumer in the design phase.

I’ve started to think about hardware products in terms of four base components:

  • Paper from packaging
  • Plastic from packaging, housings, gears, etc.
  • Metal from bearings, axles, brackets, etc.
  • PCBA (which can become eWaste)

For each one of these categories, I’m interested in: How long does it stick around? And what is required to recycle it?

Here are some stats, from best to worst:

  • Paper
    • Approximately 1 billion trees worth of paper are thrown away every year in the U.S.
    • Americans use 85M tons of paper a year; about 680 pounds per person
    • Of this amount, 67% is recycled
    • Additionally, 76%  of paper mills used some recovered paper
    • Recycling is a fairly straightforward and efficient process
  • Metal
    • Relatively easy to recycle and to process; inherently valuable
    • Aside from the diversion of material from landfills, recycling metal saves energy:
      • Aluminum - Requires 95% less energy to recycle than create from scratch.
      • Copper - 90% less energy to recycle than create from scratch.
      • Steel - 56% less energy to recycle than create from scratch.
      • Additionally, the recycling of 1 ton of steel avoids the use of 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone
  • Aluminum Cans
    • The US uses 80B aluminum cans / year
    • When you toss out 1 aluminum can, you waste as much energy as if you filled the same can half full with gasoline, and just threw it on the ground
    • It takes 90 days for a beverage in an aluminum can to return to a grocer’s shelf, after collection, smelting, rolling, manufacturing, and distribution
  • Plastic
    • Only 9% is recycled; it can take 450 years to break down (15 human generations)
    • 50% of things in recycling bins aren’t actually recycled
  • eWaste (PCBA)
    • According to the UN, over 20M metric tons of eWaste are discarded every year; this weighs as much as 60 Empire State buildings
    • Old television sets with CRTs contain approximately 4 to 8 pounds of lead which is a neurotoxin; improper disposal means this toxic substance can leach into the ground water and food stream
    • According to the EPA, only 12.5% of eWaste is recycled
    • The EPA also states that for every 1M cell phones that are recycled, there are 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium that can be recovered; there is good stuff in there - how to get it out?

What can we do?

  • Some simple things to start with at a product level:
    • Look at the whole supply chain, from cradle-to-grave
    • Use less single-use packaging, and avoid PVC; not everything needs to look like Apple. And...it saves on the BOM cost! Consider recycled or compostable plastics for single-use items
    • Design products to be repairable; less gluing, Ultrasonic welding, more screws. This approach may require products to be slightly larger to accommodate the different types of joints, but a good trade-off
    • Design for reduction, reuse and recycling from the beginning; make it easy to separate the PCBAs from the plastic; use plastic that is more efficient to recycle or compostable. An interesting challenge is that ABS, the resin used for housings that is very efficient to recycle, is a Recycling Code-7 (“Other”). Recyclers don’t want to buy this Code-7 because it’s mixed in with all sorts of other stuff that is much more difficult to recycle

These tips are a good place to start, especially for companies that are committed to sustainability. There’s a real challenge here, but as participants in this industry, it is our responsibility to make sure we are doing what we can to minimize our impact on the environment. 

What are your thoughts on this topic? We’d love to hear from you and what else you'd like to learn about sustainability in manufacturing. Send us a note at help@dragoninnovation.com 

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