Yesterday, we examined seven devices, highlighting their pluses and minuses related to recyclability, writes Stewart McGrenary. Here we separate the best from the worst and conclude with what manufacturers should be doing to make recycling easier.
Of the seven devices we investigated, three are the most recycling-friendly: The Samsung Galaxy Note 9, the Nextbook Ares 8” tablet and the Huawei P20 Pro.
Samsung, who incidentally has been an active participant in recycling initiatives, roughly adopted the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, which boded well for the Note 9 reviewed last yesterday.
Nextbook’s Ares, while not one of the premium manufacturers, held its own against one of them, and is no more difficult to assemble than the Samsung.
Huawei offered the P20 smartphone, and like the other two best devices, will be easy to recycle, due to its ease of disassembly.
The two giants, Apple and Microsoft, gave us the two worst devices to disassemble and recycle: the Mac Mini and the Surface Pro.
The Mac Mini had nothing but minuses that were anything but minor. The T6 Torx screws require special screwdrivers. Access to the RAM was difficult; when you get there, it is soldered to the motherboard.
The Microsoft Surface Pro was a virtual glue factory. Despite that, it still had more than 90 screws. Since it was not designed for disassembly, it was not designed for recycling.
What should manufacturers do to make recycling devices easier?
In our investigation of disassembling a wide variety of devices, there were a few recurring themes.
Adhesives: intended to eliminate the need for screws, to squeeze more innovation into smaller spaces. But taking the unit apart is risky to delicate components inside the units. Consequently, balanced use of adhesives is a practical idea that will contribute toward easier disassembly and recycling.
Screws: They may reduce manufacturers’ scope for reducing the size of devices, but they make disassembly much easier, especially for robots. Incidentally, screws can be recycled for scrap metal; adhesives cannot. Therefore, screws allow devices to be disassemble easier and with the screws being recyclable, it is a win-win.
Size: The smaller a device is the less recyclable materials exist inside. Therefore, they have no value to e-waste recycling companies. Accordingly, a manufacturer might do well to ask: “How small does a device really need to be?” Cell phones are understandable, but even in the interest of advancing technology and innovation, a line must be drawn somewhere.
The push for innovation is understandable. You can see from our investigation, though, that it often comes at a price. The more difficult a device is to recycle, the more the landfills grow with tons of these devices discarded.
A few simple changes in approach to design such as reducing the use of adhesives and reducing use of proprietary screws could substantially reduce the amount of devices reaching landfill. However, to have a massive impact on our e-waste recycling efforts, more needs to be done to take the computer and smartphone industries closer to being a truly successful closed-loop chain.