Beyond The Grave

Dec. 21, 2004
New regulations and concerns for the environment are prompting manufacturers to design products for easier recycling and remanufacturing.

In the old days, a manufacturer made a product and shipped it to the distributor, who then passed it on to a retailer, who sold it. Whether the product was a piece of furniture, a car or a computer, the "ka-ching" of the cash register pretty much meant the end of the manufacturer's responsibility, except for returns, warranty service, repairs or product liability. No more. Manufacturers, forced by new laws from Europe to California, are rethinking their responsibility for their products once they are worn out. Many manufacturers are taking positive steps to ensure that their products can be either recycled, remanufactured or returned to the earth safely when they have exhausted their useful life -- a concept known as design for the environment (DFE). General Motors Corp. (GM), Detroit, which has had an ongoing DFE program for more than a decade, is trying to increase the percentage of materials in autos that can be recycled. Others, such as Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), San Jose, have set examples for their industries. HP not only recycles its products, but also personal computers built by other manufacturers. Xerox Corp. reuses portions of old machines to build new ones. For all of these companies, the efforts bring both an economic payoff and an environmental one. Right now, it's the environmental one that's most pressing. Germany is requiring electronics manufacturers to assume responsibility for "taking back" their products once they are used up or obsolete. In California, PCs can no longer be legally dumped in landfills; instead, they must be turned over to an electronics recycler. What's more, Germany is requiring automobile manufacturers to boost the content of vehicles sold there to 85% recyclability. Some manufacturers believe it's only a matter of time before their industries are required to achieve a certain level of materials reuse or provide earth-friendly disposal methods for products. "We've got to get into the business of taking care of the full life cycle of the product," says David Boyd, CEO of Hewitt-Rand Co., a maker of personal computers. "We've got a lot of junk out there." Boyd says that by 2004, more than 300 million personal computers will be obsolete, representing some 3 billion pounds of trash. "The key is recycling the content," says Bill Heenan, president of the Steel Recycling Institute, a trade group in Pittsburgh. "What design for the environment says is, let the designers think about the environment and put these ideas into new products." 'Clean' Computing? The computer industry likes to call itself a "clean" industry, but in reality high-tech overall has a relatively poor track record when it comes to designing products for the environment. Until recently, for instance, personal computers had few ready takers -- other than landfills -- for their disposal when they became obsolete. Lately, though, a few companies, such as HP and IBM, have taken the lead in major nationwide PC recycling programs. Generally, though, the computer industry has been slow to promote take-back programs or recycling efforts for the millions of pounds of waste it generates annually. "With the rapid turnover of computers, there is a much shorter useful life cycle of the product," says Craig Vogel, industrial design professor at the Carnegie-Mellon School of Design in Pittsburgh and co-author with Jonathan Cagan of the book, "Creating Breakthrough Products" (2002, Prentice Hall). "This industry is making garbage faster than they know what to do with." According to one estimate, the 315 million old PCs ready to be junked by 2004, if piled together, would create a mile-high mountain of high-tech waste with the girth of a football field. What's more, that mountain would contain an estimated 1 billion pounds of lead and untold quantities of mercury, cadmium and PVC. "We think that computer companies need to hear from consumers about the desire and need for cleaner product design and take-back programs for recycling," says Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an environmental activist group in San Jose. Challenges Abound One big reason the recycling of PCs has been so limited to date is that computers contain so many different materials -- multiple plastics, lead, arsenic, mercury and others -- and recycling them isn't easy. HP maintains a huge PC recycling facility in Roseville, Calif., outside Sacramento, where used-up or obsolete PCs, monitors and printers from any manufacturer, not just HP's, can be returned for a fee of $13 (deskjet printer) to $34 (monitor or laser printer). There, they are dismantled, shredded, and recycled. HP, in turn, uses the information it gleans from the tearing-down process to coach its PC designers in ways to improve the recyclability of these products. For instance, HP's computer printer product designers were told to eschew sticking paper labels on the outer plastic casing of the ink cartridge. "The paper label would have rendered the entire cartridge unrecyclable," explains Chris Altobell, business development manager in HP's Product Recycling Solutions unit. "They were able to use ink to print the information right on the cartridge itself." For many years HP also has operated a model program for recycling of its computer printer ink cartridges. New replacement cartridges for HP printers, of which there are millions in use, come in a box with a fresh UPS label, so the purchaser can ship the empty cartridge back to HP for recycling at no cost. Each used cartridge is dismantled into its various components, including plastic, ink and foam. All are recycled. Unfortunately, such "cradle-to-cradle" programs, where manufacturers take total responsibility for the old product's return and recycling, are about as common as the endangered California condor. The fact is that many companies continue to operate with little or no attempt to apply DFE principles to ensure that their products can be reused or safely disposed after they are used up. "A lot of companies don't want to know about design for the environment and environmental sustainability," says Tom Newhouse, an industrial design consultant in Grand Rapids, Mich., who has designed products for office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc. and a major appliance manufacturer, among others. "We believe companies can be both green and profitable. The goal is to stimulate product designers to be green and still do cool products." One reason some manufacturers are reluctant to embrace DFE principles is the added cost they may bring. A few years ago, an innovative product developer for Royal Philips Electronics NV came up with a television that used 39% less energy and 32% less plastic by weight, was made out of 69% recycled materials and was 93% recyclable. The product was never marketed, largely because the designer failed to take into account such issues as time to market, marketing and relative ease of manufacturing. "The most important thing is to get your green ideas into the product concept," says Ab Stevels, a professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, who also works for Philips. In the automotive industry, Europe has taken the lead in the recycling race. Germany's so-called "take-back" law is forcing automakers to assume greater responsibility for recycling of vehicles, requiring that 85% of the vehicle's content be recycled. In the U.S., about 75% of every junked auto finds its way back into other products; the rest ends up in landfills. Much of what gets recycled from a car is steel. The reasons are that most cars contain more than 60% steel by weight, and there exists a healthy infrastructure for steel recycling. In contrast, plastics lacks such a robust infrastructure. The proliferation of different kinds of plastics, compounded by the lack of a strong market to support their reuse, poses serious hurdles impeding the recycling of both consumer electronics and automobiles. "Plastics is still one of the biggest challenges in the computer industry," says Altobell of HP. He points to the difficulty involved in trying to separate different kinds of plastics, as well as the lack of a solid market for recycled plastic. Compounding the latter issue is the fact that the cost of virgin plastic is about the same as the recycled version. "There is no incentive for manufacturers of plastic products to use recycled plastic," he adds. Even so, says Altobell, "We are working with the American Plastics Council on ways to recycle our own plastic. None of it goes to a landfill." Even so, HP must go to great lengths to find markets for the plastic it strips from old computer housings. "When we can identify the plastic type, we scout out people that can reuse that type of plastic," says Altobell. "But it's hard to find new markets for some of these kinds of plastics." One company, Conigliaro Industries Inc., recycles the plastic portion of computers with an asphalt mix to create a base for road underlayments. The Framingham, Mass., company also is using recycled plastic as filler for potholes. Autos Excel Ironically, although steel is more easily recyclable and has a ready market, the automotive industry has been boosting its use of plastics for decades, while reducing the steel content of vehicles (see "Steel Or Plastic"). GM, for one, has been making significant improvements toward increasing the amount of plastic on its vehicles that can be recycled. As early as 1994 the company published a set of design guidelines and engineering standards for both GM engineers as well as suppliers' engineers to get them to think "end of life" of the vehicles when designing their component parts. For instance, plastic bumpers and battery cases are commonly recycled today. "We want them to think, what is the value of that material at the end of the vehicle's life, and how easily can it be pulled off the vehicle for recycling and reuse," says Terry Collum, director of global design for the environment at GM in Detroit. "You want to make a plastic component that is easy to remove and recycle." This means that designers of parts should avoid what Collum calls "cross-contamination of materials." In other words, one kind of plastic shouldn't be inseparably bonded with another, or a metal bracket shouldn't be fused into a plastic shield in such a way that the two cannot be easily pulled apart. In one case, GM stopped a common practice of attaching door panels to the car using adhesives. "We did this with a lot of plastic components, making them out of different materials and using adhesive to bond them together," Collum says. "But we found this is not good for the end of life recovery of these materials." Now, one of the design standards accessible on GM's specifies that when attaching two types of plastic together, they should be mechanically attached -- such as with a bolt or screw or some other fastener, not adhesively bonded together. GM also is working to reduce the number of different kinds of plastics it uses. "On some small components we used to have upward of six types of plastics," Collum says. "When designing for recoverability, you don't want different kinds of plastics." To help meet the environmental standards in force in Europe, GM-North America has put together how-to manuals for dismantling the vehicles it exports to those markets; these are available on its Web site. "These show how to dismantle the vehicle so that you get the most value out of the end-of-life vehicle," Collum says. Finally, in a major initiative, GM is enlisting the creativity of its designers in the DFE cause by asking them to make such improvements on all its full-size trucks, SUVs and even the new Saturn. For instance, on its full-size trucks, engineers found that by substituting disc brakes on the rear versus the disc-front, drum-rear standard the company formerly followed for these vehicles, the life of the brakes could be extended appreciably, thus saving on the amount of solid waste caused by periodic brake-shoe replacement. When you're talking 1 million products annually, that's a big savings. Says Collum, "If you make small incremental changes like this, multiplied over the high volumes we have, it really reduces the overall environmental footprint as a result." GM also was able to eliminate painting the trucks' exterior grilles and mirror housings by working with its suppliers. They came up with a material in which the color could be molded in during the manufacturing process while still yielding a good surface finish. In another DFE-inspired manufacturing process modification, GM found that by using a new technology called hydroforming, it could dramatically reduce the amount of steel scrap that results from the truck frame-building process. By using water under high pressure in steel tubes, the material can be manipulated and shaped, obviating the need for stamping and welding. "The metal becomes more formable this way, and the process reduces a lot of scrap" that otherwise would have to be handled and recycled using still more energy, Collum adds. GM also has found a way to eliminate the use of lead to make electronic connections by using instead a spliceless design for electric connectors. Delphi Automotive, with some 300 product lines, including both steel and plastic gas tanks, takes a similar approach. "We look at the materials specified by the customer as well as at the materials available, and evaluate them to arrive at the best decision for both the performance of the product and the recyclability of the material," says Glenn Howarth, director of Environmental Services at the company headquarters in Troy, Mich. Delphi, for example, worked with Alcoa to develop a new material with improved corrosion resistance to replace a chromate coating for the condensers on its air conditioners. The goal was to get rid of the chrome, which is considered not only toxic for employees to work with, but also difficult to dispose of safely. The huge auto supplier's Packard Electric unit in Europe designed a new process allowing copper wire to be separated from its plastic insulation, enabling better recovery of both materials. That innovation alone, Howarth says, yields some 400 metric tons of reusable PVC scrap annually. Delphi also is working with an OEM to come up with an easier fastening system to allow for faster disassembly of a vehicle's wiring harness -- a part that can give auto dismantlers fits when they go to disassemble a car. In other industries, such as furniture, cameras and textiles, manufacturers are making serious inroads in product and process design to improve recyclability and reuse. One small manufacturer of fabrics for office furniture, Victor Innovatex Inc., makes a fully recyclable polyester fabric. Developed in a partnership with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, VI's Eco Intelligent Polyester is a synthetic fabric that can be safely recycled. "It is 100% polyester, not a blend, so it is easy to recycle," says Alain Duval, president of the privately owned Saint-Georges, Quebec firm. Another product, Climatex LifeguardFR, is a fabric made from renewable resources that contains a recyclable fire retardant material. "There is a big market for refurbished furniture," Duval says. "Chairs often are recycled, because it is less expensive than buying new furniture." Process improvements also can yield big environmental dividends. Flow International Corp., a maker of high-pressure-water cutting and cleaning tools, came up with a new recovery technique that allows customers that use its system to clean industrial tanks and ship hulls to reuse an estimated 30% to 50% of the garnet abrasive material consumed in the cleaning process. The Kent, Wash., firm designed the product to catch the waste spray of paint and rust that comes off the tanks and ship hulls so that it can be disposed of properly. Another company with a story to tell in the DFE area is Eastman Kodak. At the company's Single-Use Camera Division in Guadalajara, Mexico, one of IW's Best Plants winners last year (IW, October 2001, Page 45) more than 100 million cameras have been recycled. Plastic parts are ground and repelletized. "It's a great example of design for reuse," says Vogel of Carnegie-Mellon. But for every Kodak, every HP, and every Victor Innovatex, there are thousands of companies that have yet to use DFE to support recycling or remanufacturing of their products. "It's a whole system the company has to develop to support a completely recyclable product," Vogel observes. "The product has to be easy to recycle, and that takes a lot of coordination between engineers and designers."

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