By Cat DiStasio
Many modern gadgets seem like they were designed to be disposable, forcing consumers to buy a new model instead of repairing their old one. This leads to an enormous amount of waste, and it’s difficult to find places that recycle the tech we no longer need. Fortunately, a new wave of product design is surging: devices that are made from sustainable materials and can be easily repaired, often by the end user. These new designs range from smartphones with swappable modules to circuit boards that dissolve in hot water and automated kiosks that dispense cash in exchange for electronics. With the new trend on the rise, we can look forward to a world where fewer gadgets are destined for landfills.
It’s no secret that electronic components aren’t biodegradable, although some engineers have attempted to develop more eco-friendly versions over the years. A team of researchers at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory took on the challenge and wound up creating a circuit board that dissolves in hot water. The device melts away after being submerged, leaving 90 percent of its resistors and capacitors available for reuse. Compared to traditional circuit board recycling, which salvages only two percent of the electronic components, this is a major breakthrough in reducing e-waste.
Leave it to one of the world’s largest tech companies to bring a modular smartphone to market. Google’s Project Ara is a smartphone composed of individual modules that can be swapped and replaced, so you can repair or upgrade the phone instead of having to throw it out and buy a brand new one. The futuristic handset is expected to go on sale next year, and Google has designed six different modules that snap together like LEGO bricks, each with its own special function. Reportedly, a developer model will be released later this year, with a consumer version slated to arrive in 2017.
Apple, the tech giant with nearly a billion devices in use around the world, has developed a robot named Liam that disassembles old iPhones so the components can be reused. Liam works quickly to tear down the unwanted handsets, and the robot is sort of the mascot of the new Apple Renew program, which invites consumers to send in their Apple gadgets using a prepaid label provided by the company. Making it easier to dispose of broken or outmoded electronics, and having a fast-moving robot to take them apart, is one way Apple is working to minimize the environmental impact of our high-tech world.
The second edition of the Fairphone, originally launched in 2013, is a handset that cuts down on electronic waste while also ensuring that its components are ethically sourced. The Fairphone 2 features a modular design that can be easily repaired by the end user. That feature allows consumers to upgrade their unit or replace malfunctioning parts without replacing the entire device. Additionally, the phone’s makers source conflict-free tin and tantalum from The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is something not all smartphone makers can say.
In a world of disposable electronic devices, just about everyone you know has had an old phone or dysfunctional MP3 player lying around at some point, as it can be a challenge to figure out what to do with them once they’re no longer needed. A finalist for the 2013 Index Design Award, the ecoATM offers one clever solution. The unmanned machine accepts unwanted small electronics in exchange for cold, hard cash. Sort of. Essentially, the ecoATM helps you sell your old phone, tablet or MP3 player, for an average price of around $25. With its headquarters in California, the company already has 350 stations in 24 states so it’s pretty easy to turn your unwanted gadget into a little extra pocket change.
Finding new uses for electronic waste is one smart way to deal with the growing problem. In perhaps the ultimate display of eco-friendly electronics design, this $100 3D printer was built entirely from e-waste. Kodjo Afate Gnikou, a resourceful inventor from Togo in West Africa, collected unwanted parts from broken scanners, printers and computers to create a working 3D printer that rivals commercial models with thousand-dollar price tags. The ingenious scavenger harvested parts from a nearby landfill, but it’s easy to imagine how electronic components could be collected separately and diverted to factories, where new devices are built from the discarded guts of old gadgets.