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Originally published Monday, February 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Electronics designers find it's not easy being green

Before the Panasonic SD Video Camera was born, designers planned for its death. When the $400 camera wears out and can no longer record...

Los Angeles Times

Before the Panasonic SD Video Camera was born, designers planned for its death.

When the $400 camera wears out and can no longer record video, play music or take photos, Panasonic engineers want it to do one final thing: be easy to get rid of.

So it has no lead, no mercury and no brominated flame retardants — all hazardous substances that make consumer electronics such as personal computers, digital cameras and televisions dangerous to bury in landfills and difficult to recycle.

The camera's aluminum casing can be smelted and made into other products. When its lithium ion battery runs out, it can be dropped off at one of 30,000 retail stores nationwide.

"We wanted to eliminate hazardous materials and make it easy to recycle," said David Thompson, director of corporate environmental affairs at Matsushita Electrical Industrial, which owns Panasonic. "This is a design objective that's being built into all of our products."

And not just at Panasonic. Computer and electronics makers around the world increasingly factor a product's destruction into its creation. The trend is driven in part by environmental regulations but also by shorter product cycles and a consumer culture in which obsolete gadgetry stacks up quickly.

"Prices for electronics have come way down," said Philip White, principal designer at Orb Analysis in San Francisco and a professor of product design at San Jose State University. "Instead of fixing something, it's become cheaper to throw it away and get a new one."

Where's the scrap heap?

Americans annually toss out more than 100 million cellphones, according to Collective Good International, a group that collects and resells used cellphones. Each day, 10,000 TVs and PC monitors go dark, according to the National Safety Council. And an estimated three-quarters of all home PCs, working or not, are stuffed in closets, attics and basements — in large part because getting rid of them can be such a hassle.

"I've got an old cellphone, and I have no idea what to do with it," said Bruce Goodman, an attorney in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I also have an old PC with a monitor sitting in a room that I never use. But I can't just throw away a monitor in the trash. And I'm nervous about throwing away a PC that has confidential information on it. So they just sit there until I can figure out what to do with them."

Different locales treat electronic trash in different ways, with some having laws that prohibit disposal except at certain collection centers. Others take a more traditional route: making it the customer's problem.


European countries go further with some regulations. Germany requires electronics manufacturers to take back their products when customers are finished with them. Next year, the rest of the European Union will have similar rules. And by 2006, the European countries will ban sales of equipment containing lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and brominated flame retardants.

"Sustainable design"

At the heart of these regulations is an economic notion stating that the best way to deal with pollution is to build its cost into the product. If companies must pay to dispose of their own products, they would have an incentive to design their products to be easier to recycle or more environmentally friendly and, thus, less costly to clean up.

"If companies know they're going to see these things again, will they design them differently? You bet they will," said Bruce Sterling, a lecturer at Pasadena's influential Art Center College of Design, which next year will include "sustainable design" classes in its curriculum.

Manufacturers expect tighter regulations to become the norm in some of their biggest markets. So they're changing the design process.

At Panasonic, designers conduct a 40-step review that, among other things, looks at the ability to recycle materials used in their prototypes, and how quickly products can be taken apart for recycling.

Because plastics are more difficult to recycle, designers are encouraged to use metals.

"Markets for recycled metals are much more advanced than for plastics," Matsushita's Thompson said.

Designers also try to reduce the number of parts or materials used in a single product, making it simpler to sort and recycle.

"Four years ago, we did a survey of our usage of plastic resin," Thompson said. "We were using way too many grades of polystyrene. We standardized on a limited number."

A 1984 Panasonic television, for instance, had 13 types of plastics, 39 plastic parts and took 140 seconds to take apart. The 2000 model contained just two types of plastic, eight plastic parts and took 78 seconds to disassemble.

Hewlett-Packard, which has taken back 100 million pounds of defunct products over the years, has made similar changes in its product designs.

"We're aware of what it means to take equipment back and deal with it at the end of its life," said HP Corporate Environmental Program Manager John Burkitt.

Designers at the Palo Alto, Calif., company look for ways to avoid gluing product parts together because adhesives contaminate the recycled materials and make sorting next to impossible.

They also try to cut down the number of screws in favor of parts that snap together. If screws must be used, designers use the same type of screws, all oriented in the same direction, so they can be removed in rapid succession, using one tool.

"We try to make it as simple as possible to disassemble and recycle at the end of its life," Burkitt said.

By the pound

Manolo Cassasola appreciates the effort. Cassasola dismantles electronic devices at Silicon Salvage, a recycling company in Anaheim, Calif.

Equipped with pliers, wire cutters and screwdrivers, Cassasola rips apart personal computers. In rapid motions, he pops out the circuit board and tosses it into a barrel behind him — a pound can sell for as much as $1, thanks to the tiny amounts of gold, silver, palladium and copper used to make it.

Copper wires go into another bin and sell for about 35 cents a pound. The metal case will fetch 50 cents a pound. And the CD-ROM and hard-disk drive are wiped clean of data and packed into boxes to be sent to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, where they are built into low-cost computers.

"These things have more value taken apart than they do as a whole," said Silicon Salvage owner Chuck Hulse.

"But these things," he gestured at an 8-foot stack of printers, "they're very much throwaway items."

He ticks off their liabilities: too many types of plastic in a single printer, too much paint, and they're contaminated with fire retardants.

"This is the hardest thing for me to deal with," Hulse said. "We just have no way to economically recycle these things."


As a result, the printers probably will end up in a landfill. In America, electronic devices represent less than 4 percent of total solid waste, but they make up 70 percent of all hazardous waste.

Some companies also are trying to make sure that what they send to recyclers is as clean as possible. HP eliminated paint from many of its products because dyes can contaminate and weaken the underlying plastic when recycled.

But "in some markets, such as cellphones or music players that come in all kinds of colors, [paint] is a requirement," said Mark Newton, Dell's manager of worldwide environmental affairs. Dell engineers are researching water-based paints that can be easily dissolved.

"This movement puts the spotlight on designers," said Bob Adams, a designer at IDEO, a technology-design company in Palo Alto. "They make decisions that result in how hundreds of millions of items are manufactured each year. They decide the shape of the object, how it's produced, where it's produced. Designers are, in a way, gatekeepers."

Traditionally, however, designers have been trained to think of how a product will be used in its lifetime — not what happens to it when it dies.

Shorter lives

These days, products are dying even faster than they used to. Traditional, cathode-ray tube (CRT) television sets can be counted on for at least seven years, with some lasting more than 20 years. But newer plasma TV sets begin to wear out in just three to four years, said Rob Enderle, a technology consultant.

With DVD players, slashed prices have also translated into a decline in quality.

Other electronics — PCs, digital music players or digital cameras — become obsolete before they even stop working.

"We want to create designers who are responsible," said Karen Hofmann, coordinator of the materials lab and a design instructor at Art Center College of Design. The school is retooling its labs to research and teach the environmental properties of materials. "We definitely see a demand down the pipeline from employers for students who understand sustainable design principles."

A prominent proponent of this approach is William McDonough, co-author of the book "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things."

"There's only one way to make companies pay attention, and that is to make it relevant to their prosperity," said McDonough, who believes that companies can be persuaded to go one step further and reuse the materials that come back as free raw material for new products. "To change the endgame, you have to start from the beginning."

Hazardous components
Electronic waste such as cellphones, computers and TV sets, though a tiny portion of the total solid-waste stream, contributes about 70 percent of the nation's hazardous waste. Here's a list of select harmful chemicals contained in common consumer electronics. Some materials, such as polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, release harmful dioxins when incinerated.
Sources Harmful substances
Computers Lead, mercury, cadmium, polybrominated diphenylethers
CRT monitors Lead, hexavalent chromium, barium
Flat-panel monitors Mercury, lead
Digital cameras Polyvinyl chloride, lead acid, cadmium, lithium
Cellphones Antimony, arsenic, lead, beryllium, cadmium, copper, zinc
Digital music players Arsenic, lead, cadmium
Source: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition / Los Angeles Times

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