As technology advances rapidly, the question of how to sustainably manufacture new products and how to dispose of old ones are both of increasing importance. After all, the average lifespan of devices is shrinking, and the United Nations is projecting that people will generate 52.2 million metric tons of e-waste globally by 2021.
When we talk about our waste problem with experts in the IEEE community, a recurring idea is that these resourcing questions present a series of opportunities to innovate in other ways. Kaikai Xu, IEEE Senior member, Professor at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, is adamant on this front: “Opportunities often coexist with challenges,” he says. An example on Xu’s mind? “We will save a lot of energy and materials if we can reduce the power consumption and size of chips in the semiconductor industry, as there is a huge demand for electronic products all over the world. There will be a huge market for the design of low-power chips.”
For Paige Kassalan, IEEE Graduate Student member, “One industry that has a lot of opportunity is building and construction. For Solar Impulse, we had very efficient insulation to keep the pilots in a bearable temperature at 8.5km. That insulation is now used in refrigerators to allow for less energy to be lost.” Through advances in research and manufacturing, we can decrease the amount of material needed to produce items (meaning less waste), as well as make those items more efficient (meaning less energy use). Already, smart manufacturing is developing rapidly. The concept revolves around using an integrated computing platform that encompasses the full production process – engineering, manufacturing and delivery. By creating a holistic set of data, efficiency can be greatly improved.
Using Sensors and Data
Sensors, data and software have roles to play both in manufacturing and waste disposal. Disposing of waste has long been a complex issue. After all, no one wants to live near a landfill, or to have other people’s trash brought into their neighborhood. The issue gets exacerbated as electronic materials like chips, batteries and screens enter the waste stream. As a result, “Waste management and disposal continues to increase in costs while trying to adhere to tighter constraints to remain environmentally sustainable,” says Karen Panetta, IEEE Fellow and Dean of Graduate Education at Tufts University. Environmental regulation and cost pressures are helping drive innovation in making technologies smaller, as well as making the production process less wasteful. While this stands to improve the future, there’s still the question of disposing of many outdated electronics, which can be hazardous if handled improperly. To address health concerns, Panetta says, “some of the newest technological advances are utilizing low-cost sensor technologies and wireless communications to measure the decay in landfills and to monitor waste flow in open water and the effects on wildlife, humans and the environment.”
By using sensors to get tangible numbers, it becomes easier to make better policy decisions when it comes to waste, according to Panetta. And that doesn’t just apply to sites that contain e-waste – it’s also applicable to all types of landfill contents, as well as local infrastructure like drinking water. “For instance,” Panetta says, “consider the water quality issues that plagued cities in Michigan. Engineers took the initiative to collect the data, work with residents to conduct the water testing and proved to the municipality that there was a true health issue, which contradicted the municipality’s position. The results and conclusions from this data science approach were indisputable.”